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Against the Spread: 2011 NFL Picks Preview

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- We are now entering the greatest time of the year. The leaves change colors. The air is cool and crisp, perfect weather for Bill Belichick-inspired hooded sweatshirts. Recipes for assorted pies are dusted off. The shelves at the liquor store are stocked with pumpkin ale. Yes, it's nearly autumn, and it's (finally) time for football.

The NFL returns this week after a calamitous offseason marred by a four-month lockout of its players. This week also marks my return to recreational investing. Last season, TheStreet published my five picks against the spread each week. Ultimately, I ended the regular season with a record of 42-42 and my postseason picks went 9-3 including the one-game playoff between the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams. It probably goes without saying, but I want to improve on that .500 record during the regular season.

So much has happened during the condensed offseason that it may be hard for some bettors to pin down exactly what's most important for wagering purposes. Are the New England Patriots going to help reform Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth? Are the Indianapolis Colts a reliable bet against the spread without Peyton Manning under center? Have the Chicago Bears solved their offensive line woes to prevent Jay Cutler from being sacked a million times this season?

As it turns out, it may be one very specific play on Nov. 14, 2010, that has the greatest impact on the entire season and beyond: the Hail Mary toss from Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard at the end of regulation that was initially batted down by a Houston Texans player before being caught by Mike Thomas for the Jags' victory. You may have come across this play on the NFL Network recently, as they play it approximately 8,762 times per hour, complete with Gus Johnson's over-the-top announcing.

The Jaguars finished last season with an 8-8 record, outperforming considering the tough slate of teams (Chargers, Eagles, Colts) they faced. The Texans, meanwhile, ended with a regular season record of 6-10, underperforming against a similarly tough group of teams like the Jets, Chargers, Eagles and Ravens. Neither were able to unseat the Colts, who have held a tight grip on the AFC South top spot in every year but one since 2003. Things could change this season, though, based on that one unbelievable play last year.

"The entire landscape of this NFL season was completely altered," says Paul Bessire, the general manager of the Web site PredictionMachine.com, which uses quantitative methods to simulate each NFL game 50,000 times to come up with a pick against the spread. Bessire, who went 12-0 in postseason using his model's picks, says that Jags/Texans game has implications most bettors aren't factoring in.

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