2016 NFL Picks: Week 1

2016 NFL Picks: Week 1

Welcome to the first installment of Questionably Qualified's weekly NFL picks! Each week I'll pick three to five games with a spread I like and explain the rationale behind them. If you missed our explanation of how betting against the spread works, check out our Gambling Primer

In 2016 I'm hoping to build on the success of years past (56.0% in 2014 and 58.3% in 2015) to break the 60% barrier. As a rule of thumb, a 52.5% success rate is required to break even after accounting for the vig, so getting to 60% would be valuable in a world where gambling was legal.

Many of the statistics I'll reference while making my case (particularly DVOA) will be coming from the folks at Football Outsiders who do a great job creating and applying advanced analytics. Another site, WhatIfSports, provides the simulation engine used to generate the winning scoreboards below. Finally, the spreads for each game come from Vegas Insider's Consensus line. A big thank you to all three sources as I embark on my quest for 60%. Let's get to the picks!

The Short Version

Apparently I have a tendency to go overboard when talking about football, so here's the summary:

  • Minnesota Vikings -2 AT Tennessee Titans - even without Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings are a considerably better all-around team.
  • Cincinnati Bengals -2.5 AT New York Jets - the Bengals get back to their winning ways with a healthy Andy Dalton.
  • Buffalo Bills +3 AT Baltimore Ravens - the better team getting points; Baltimore was 5-11 last year.
  • Chicago Bears +6.5 AT Houston Texans - the Bears can't lose by a touchdown to an AFC South team...can they? 
  • New York Giants EVEN AT Dallas Cowboys - I don't believe in Dak Prescott.

Minnesota Vikings -2 AT Tennessee Titans

If Stefon Diggs scores a touchdown AND the Vikings cover, I'll throw a party. I'm willing to settle for one of the two.

If Stefon Diggs scores a touchdown AND the Vikings cover, I'll throw a party. I'm willing to settle for one of the two.

The Case For the Vikings

Last year, Minnesota rode a young, talented defense and an ageless Adrian Peterson to the top of the NFC North. After losing a tough contest to Seattle in the Wild Card round, expectations were high entering this season. Then incumbent QB Teddy Bridgewater tore up his knee in practice; now the Vikings are left with journeyman Shaun Hill and the newly arrived (via trade) Sam Bradford. Neither option inspires much confidence. 

This pick, though, is about the Titans as much as it is the Vikings. Last year Tennessee was terrible, recording only three wins and posting the second-worst total DVOA in the league. Some might be optimistic about a second year jump for Marcus Mariota, but they likely missed the news that his head coach wants to harken back to the days of yore and run the ball up the middle.  

Minnesota has a high offensive floor as long as Adrian Peterson is available, and even without Touchdown Teddy they should beat up on a hapless Tennessee Titans team.  

The Biggest Risk Factor

Minnesota's quarterback. Bradford has more raw talent than Shaun Hill, but that isn't saying much. If they can protect the football and convert a couple long third downs when Peterson needs a breather, their defense should allow them to cover this small spread without lighting up the scoreboard.


Cincinnati Bengals -2.5 AT New York Jets

If someone suggested this final score last year before Andy Dalton's injury, no one would have blinked.

If someone suggested this final score last year before Andy Dalton's injury, no one would have blinked.

The Case For the Bengals

Cincinnati was one of the best teams in the league last year in almost every category, finishing first in offensive, tenth in defensive, and ninth in special teams DVOA. Of course, their season unraveled when Andy Dalton broke his thumb attempting a tackle after throwing an interception. They were forced to roll out AJ McCarron, a solid college quarterback with almost no NFL experience for the remainder of the season and their playoff loss.

The Jets were a strange team to follow last year. Ryan Fitzpatrick got the interception monkey off his back after ten seasons in the NFL (3.5% INT rate from 2005-2014, 2.9% last year) but they barely missed the playoffs at 10-6. I'm expecting Fitzpatrick to revert to his equal opportunity passing approach and the Bengals to play well enough in all phases to not beat themselves. Like they did last year. In the playoffs. Oops.

The Biggest Risk Factor

Besides a repeat performance of the team-wide meltdown mentioned above? Probably the magic of Todd Bowles. After two seasons as the Defensive Coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, Bowles took the head job in New York last year and wasted no time implementing his blitz-happy scheme. Andy Dalton has struggled against pressure in his career, so if the Bengals have to throw or if his offensive line doesn't hold up, it might be a long day for the Red Rifle.


Buffalo Bills +3 AT Baltimore Ravens

I don't understand why this line suggests the Ravens not to be good, but I'll happily pick against them until it's corrected.

I don't understand why this line suggests the Ravens not to be good, but I'll happily pick against them until it's corrected.

The Case For the Bills

Like their AFC East kin the Jets, Buffalo had a weird 2015 season. Noted defensive schemer Rex Ryan took over the second-ranked defense by DVOA and turned them into the 24th-ranked defense. Wait, that isn't how it's supposed to work! They lucked out on the other side of the ball, where Tyrod Taylor emerged as an effective NFL quarterback after four years backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore. 

Speaking of the Ravens, they're coming off of a rare down season in which they posted only 5 wins. Everyone seems to be expecting a bounce-back in 2016, but I see a team whose defensive star (Terrell Suggs) turns 34 this season and who lost a top offensive lineman (Kelechi Osemele) in free agency. I think Rex gets the Buffalo defense back on track and Tyrod Taylor does enough to beat middling teams like the Ravens.

The Biggest Risk Factor

See that bit about Rex's disappointing defensive debut? If that keeps up, even the 49ers could score against them. I'm hoping the release of a disgruntled Mario Williams helps get things back on track.


Chicago Bears +6.5 AT Houston Texans

Probably not a good sign that it took me seven tries to simulate a game where the Bears cover.

Probably not a good sign that it took me seven tries to simulate a game where the Bears cover.

The Case For the Bears

It's Week 1 and I'm already breaking one of my rules: don't bet on your own team. That rule is in place to avoid 1) the risk of a double gut punch loss (your team loses and you lose money) and 2) the undeniable bias involved. 

Last year, Da Bears were an injured, inconsistent mess. Check out these receiving numbers: 

Zero 1,000-yard receivers and only one 500-yard receiver. Ouch.

Zero 1,000-yard receivers and only one 500-yard receiver. Ouch.

They parted ways with Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte in the offseason, but they'll be rolling out 2015 first round pick Kevin White and a presumably healthy Alshon Jeffery in Week 1. I'm not ecstatic about the myriad injuries and suspensions on defense, but against the Texans... 

Capable NFL Quarterbacks are extremely difficult to find, which means teams will overpay to secure someone with a track record (see: Joe Flacco) and spend lavishly on flashes of potential. Brock Osweiler was a beneficiary of the latter habit this offseason, landing a 4-year, $72 million contract on the "strength" of a 48.8 QBR and a 86.4 Passer Rating in 8 games for Denver. Unfortunately for Texans fans, Brock Osweiler isn't good. This shouldn't be news to anyone: he wasn't good at my alma mater, Arizona state, and he wasn't graded highly entering the 2014 draft. The Bears defense has been weak of late, but a bad quarterback can make even the motliest units appear competent. 

The Biggest Risk Factor

JJ Watt. I won't say much because apparently he's covered extensively enough to generate backlash, so let's agree he's the best defensive player in the NFL and move on. If he bursts through the line and consumes Jay Cutler, absorbing his power like some terrifying Kirby, they can win by a touchdown.


New York Giants EVEN AT Dallas Cowboys

No sweat!

No sweat!

The Case For the Giants

The Giants played their inconsistent brand of football right to a 6-10 record last year. They can be a frustrating team to depend on, but they have a very good quarterback in Eli Manning and one of the best receivers in the game in Odell Beckham Jr. Whether the defense improves as much as envisioned when they shelled out over $80 million of guaranteed money in free agency remains to be seen; either way, it should be enough to handle rookie Dak Prescott in his debut.

The Cowboys still have one of the best offensive lines in the game and an exciting rookie running back in Ezekiel Elliott, but don't overthink this one too much: they're starting a fourth round pick at quarterback against a competent team. 

The Biggest Risk Factor

Last year the Giants lost two games to Philadelphia, who finished 22nd in total DVOA. The Giants being the Giants is the biggest risk factor here.


Yax's Picks

I pestered Yax until he made picks too, and here's what he came up with with his explanations and my commentary:

Detroit Lions +3.5 AT Indianapolis Colts

Yax: It's Week 1; when else am I going to have an opportunity to pick an untarnished Lions squad? This city is abuzz with blistering hot takes and talk of a mediocre Lions season. On the way to work this morning, I heard a caller on sports radio say that Matt Stafford was going to be better without Calvin Johnson.

Both of these teams are mediocre. The Colts, like the Lions, tried to improve their terrible offensive line through the draft without any meaningful free agent upgrade. The Lions have a stronger defensive front and more weapons on offense than the Colts. Even though Andrew Luck is better than Stafford, I'll take the Lions on points.

Honestly, spread aside, I should pick the Lions straight up, but I won't because that's gotten me in trouble before.

Truck: homerism aside, the Colts are a disaster outside of Andrew Luck and TY Hilton. Taking the points is probably smart. I'll do the same!

Houston Texans -6 VS. Chicago Bears -

Yax: This pick is ALL about how bad I think the Bears are. They can't lose to the Lions six straight times and expect my endorsement.

I think the Texans defense will give the Bears fits, and I am unsure how the Bears secondary handles DeAndre Hopkins.

Truck: he either won't pick a division rival or has some semblance of faith in Brock Osweiler.

Cleveland Browns +4 AT Philadelphia Eagles

Yax: This game should be a pick'em. Both of these teams are trash. I didn't think it was a great idea to draft Carson Wentz, and I think it's a terrible idea to start him in his first season in the NFL.

Maybe RG III regains some of that old form? I don't know, but I do know that the Eagles shouldn't be giving four to anybody.

Truck: I don't know how Philly is planning to score points this year, so starting out with four can make even the Browns look attractive.

Buffalo Bills +3 AT Baltimore Ravens

Yax: We'll see if the Brothers Ryan can reignite that Bills D. Maybe they can, maybe they can't. Tyrod Taylor and that offense seem legitimate though.

Why should we think the Ravens are any better than last year? Weddle is a good pick up at safety, but Mike Wallace as the marquee addition to this offense doesn't inspire confidence.

Cue that ridiculous Bills fight song.

Truck: hopefully we're not being swayed by our friend Meghan's affinity for the Bills. They do have a history of breaking hearts, after all.


2016 NFL Picks: Week 2

2016 NFL Picks: Week 2

Questionably Qualified's NFL Picks Primer

Questionably Qualified's NFL Picks Primer