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Against the Spread: 2010 NFL Picks: Week 3

TheStreet offers picks against the spread for five NFL games in Week 3.

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- After going two for three with my NFL picksagainst the spread in Week 2, my wiseguy ego was battered and bruised. I sent a sullen email to Paul Bessire, the general manager and creator of the Web site PredictionMachine.com, wallowing in the embarrassment of such a weak performance.

"It wasn't the best NFL week for us either," Bessire replied Monday by email. "Some painful losses, but it should more than even out. It's an investment. Time and patience are key."

Bolstered by his pep talk, I am taking a 5-5 record for the season not a defeat but as a challenge. I still had lingering questions about Week 2, so I gave Bessire a call to discuss some of the pitfalls of Week 2 before I could move on to the Week 3 against the spread picks.

Donovan McNabb (Washington Redskins)

Bessire gave me some anecdotal evidence that I should be content with a 2-3 record for Week 2 in the form of results from the

Supercontest at the Las Vegas Hilton

sportsbook.

ESPN

writer and Supercontest entrant

Chad Millman noted on his subscription blog

that only one of the top five overall picks in the Supercontest for Week 2 (the

Houston Texans

) covered the spread. Losing picks in the top five were the

New England Patriots

, the

Philadelphia Eagles

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, the

Minnesota Vikings

and the

Tennessee Titans

.

It should be noted that the Hilton's Supercontest isn't for your regular, average bettor. Professional NFL bettors pony up $1,500 to enter into the contest, which has more than $200,000 on the line. If put in terms of the NFL, this contest is the Super Bowl for football gamblers.

"That made me feel a lot better about my picks," Bessire said by phone Thursday. "It was such a bad week even to those who have shown success as professionals. The real winners this weekend were the sports books. Only five favorites covered and, generally, the betting public bets on the favorites."

>>2010 College Football Picks, Week 4

What's important is to not dwell on a losing record this early in the season. Like investing in the stock market, there's always a risk of losing once in a while. And like a stock market trader, one has to stick with the investing plan and resist the urge to change your philosophy based on shortcomings.

"Even if you view the NFL season as the long term, you're only 2/17ths of the way in," Bessire says. "There's a long way to go and to be down on anything now or change the philosophy at this point would be a problem. You don't want to overreact to any market. Just like we saw Vegas overreact with lines from Week 1 to Week 2, I think people may overreact from Week 2 to Week 3, as almost everyone did not do well last week."

Bessire brings up a critical point about money management. When people overreact, there is a tendency to bet more in order to make up losses. Bessire says this is the wrong approach, arguing that you shouldn't bet more when your bankroll is smaller.

On the flip side, some bettors may wager drastically less after subpar results in the first two weeks. But like an investment in the stock market, you can't maintain that course because it will end up making you less money on your investment.

Bessire's approach is to stay the course. He argues that the more we learn about the teams as weeks progress, the stronger the opinions will be. "The more we learn about teams, the better this information will get. Then we can remove bias from the situation," he says.

From a strategy perspective, Bessire is right; It's hard to argue that any change needs to be made, especially when so many picks I made last week in the Yahoo! NFL Pick 'Em league for

TheStreet

readers and prognosticators looked as though they would easily cover in the second half of the game.

For example, the

Washington Redskins

had a large second-half lead at home, which they quickly frittered away to the visiting Texans. Houston would win the game in overtime on a field goal, which resulted in a push as the spread was +3.

But perhaps the most infuriating loss for NFL spread bettors in Week 2 came after the

Philadelphia Eagles

squandered a huge lead to defeat the

Detroit Lions

by a mere 3 points. The Eagles had been huge favorites, even as they traveled on the road to Detroit. They failed to cover by allowing the Lions to sneak in the back door with late scores.

"It was the most fascinating week I think I've seen," Bessire says. "There were eight of our strong picks, including over/under bets, where the pick looked like it was going to cover late in the second half. So I can't say that we need to change our strategy. There were so many times when a pick ended up being unlucky. Everything broke against us."

With that, I'm going to stick to my pick strategy of examining yards-per-play and turnover differentials, as well as fundamental keys to each game. A 5-5 record isn't worthy of a ticker tape parade, but perhaps we can build on this, as Herm Edwards is fond of saying.

Before we get to the Week 3 picks against the spread, I should note that my selections of the Titans and the

Green Bay Packers

would have kept me alive in survival/knockout pool. For Week 3, I'm selecting a team to win straight up outside of our normal against the spread picks. After that tough loss at home in overtime, the Redskins will be able to go on the road to beat the

St. Louis Rams

.

Now, onto the first pick for Week 3. Bessire has offered his comments on each of my five picks based on results from the

PredictionMachine's

50,000 game simulations.

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots (-14.5)

"

Buff +13.5? the Bills will be lucky if it's 30-10. I sense a 1-4 week for this author

." That comment came from a reader of my Week 2 column after I said Green Bay would not cover the two-touchdown spread over the hapless Bills. Was it a dumb pick? In retrospect, yes, but I would likely make the same choice again. My analysis and research said that while the Bills are terrible on offense, their defense will keep them in close games.

This week, however, is a different story. The Bills are on the road for a second straight game, this time at division rivals the Patriots. New England unraveled in the second half of their Week 2 game at the Jets, which ended up being a winning pick for me. Still, the Patriots are back home and are likely gnashing at their teeth at the thought of pummeling a weaker division rival.

Over the last three seasons, the Patriots have covered the spread twice in three games at home against the Bills. New England is a more impressive 4-1 with one tie against Buffalo overall against the spread since 2007. So despite the relatively high spread, this helps make taking the Patriots more palatable.

Looking at the stats also makes me lean toward New England. The Bills are averaging 89 and 87 yards passing and rushing, respectively. That's horrendous. The defense, which should be better than it has performed, have given up 321 yards to opposing offensive units. The Patriots haven't been that much better on defense, but their offense has done well passing the ball. They play a much weaker defense this week than they did against the Jets in Week 2.

Bessire's Take

: "Last week, that line was way too high for any game in Week 2. Clearly, the Bills' offense is so bad that I'm not sure that the line can get high enough. I'm always concerned about motivations in the NFL when lines get into the double digits. It is far more difficult to decide what will happen when a game gets out of hand. Knowing that Belichick and the Patriots love blowing teams out, I can assume that they should assume they'd win in the 17-point range. The Patriots should win 29-13. It's the strongest confidence we've had straight up."

The Pick: Patriots -14.5

. I don't care if it's going to take more than two touchdowns to cover the spread. My gut now says that the Bills are a mess, and the numbers over the first two weeks show that. The Patriots have a positive yards-per-play differential (0.39) even after playing probably the best defense in the league in the Jets. The Bills, meanwhile, have a negative YPP differential (-1.86) and a higher turnover differential. It's hard to believe they'll change that trend on the road against a division opponent.

Tennessee Titans at New York Giants (-3)

When two 1-1 teams play in Week 3 of the NFL season, it almost always is an interesting game. I say that because the hope is that the winning team will eventually turn their season around while the other team will continue its downward spiral. This particular game between the Titans and Giants becomes more interesting because both teams are drastically underperforming, with many pundits expecting both to be contenders for a wild card spot this season if they don't win their division outright.

Let's examine the visiting team first. The Titans have been solid on offense, if you take a look at the numbers. They average 291 yards per game on offense, rushing for an average of 125 yards per game thanks to Chris Johnson. The defense has performed even better, allowing an average of 86 yards passing and 120 yards rushing. The big difference for this team has been the turnovers. The offense has given up eight turnovers while the defense has forced only three. Those turnovers forced quarterback Vince Young out of the game in Week 3, as he was benched in favor of backup Kerry Collins.

It's mostly the same story with the Giants. The offense has been pretty good, gaining an average of 316 yards per game. Turnovers, though, have been a difference-maker. In the Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, Eli Manning (pictured above) and the Giants offense turned the ball over three times for a total of seven turnovers this season. By comparison, the Giants defense managed to force only one turnover in the game against the Colts.

Bessire's Take

: "That 3-point line for the Giants is appropriate, as it essentially means home-field advantage. When the Giants are favored by 3 points, we have neither team covering more than 50% of the time. That means there is a high chance of a push. If this game was played in Tennessee, you'd see the exact line the other way. It'll be interesting to see where both teams go from here as both looked worse last week than expected. I truly believe that whichever team comes out victorious and covers convincingly is more likely to make the playoffs."

The Pick: Titans +3

. The Giants and Titans haven't faced each other in the last three years, so there's no straight-up or against-the-spread historical data to look at. My pick of the Titans is instead based on a much higher yards-per-play differential on the season (1.61) than the Giants (0.42). Turnovers are a big deal, obviously, but I'm taking into account that the Titans' miserable turnover differential in Week 2 came as they played one of the best defenses in the league. The Giants defense gave up 160 rushing yards last week to the Colts. It seems like that job only gets tougher going against one of the NFL's elite running backs this week.

Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans (-3)

Holy cow, the Cowboys are a bad team.

I've been reading and hearing a lot of similar comments to that effect this week, but it's important to look at why people believe that's the case. Looking at pure statistics, the Cowboys' offensive and defensive units appear to be really effective. The offense averages 395 yards per game and the defense gives up only an average of 279 yards per game. That should be a winning recipe, right?

Wrong. The Cowboys are averaging only 14 points per game while they give up 20 PPG. Last week, the offense managed only 36 rushing yards against the Bears. And while the defense has been great, they haven't been able to force any turnovers in the first two weeks of the season.

Unfortunately for the Texans, their defense is terrible against the pass, giving up an average of 411 yards through the air to opposing teams. Tony Romo (pictured above) has too many weapons on offense, so it appears the Texans' defense is going to have its hands full again.

However, in the preseason game between these two teams, Texans running back Arian Foster had a field day running up and down the field. With Dallas staring at the possibility of starting 0-3 before heading into the bye week, the Cowboys may have revenge on their minds.

Bessire's Take

: "This is another game where we don't have a strong opinion. We think the Texans win by 4 points with a score of 27-23. The spread is only 3 points, but we're still not off the Dallas bandwagon yet. We believe that they can put up a lot more points on offense. They have too much talent to not be a .500 team this season. That said, Houston's team is really good. Playing in Houston and then having a strong offense, it's hard to see Dallas barely covering."

The Pick: Houston -3

. Dallas can't score points, plain and simple. Romo and the Cowboys offense went on the road in Week 1 and lost to the Redskins, scoring only 7 points. The Texans made that same trip in Week 2 and pummeled Washington to win in overtime, amassing 30 points in the process.

New York Jets at Miami Dolphins (-1.5)

My record in picking Jets games against the spread is 1-1, and I'm still not sure I have an appropriate handle on the team. What I do know is that they have a solid defense that has forced six turnovers this season, while the offense has coughed up the ball only once. If turnovers are truly a difference-maker, then the Jets have the advantage. That said, Darrelle Revis is out with an injury, leaving the defense without its top player. Meanwhile, receiver Braylon Edwards was in the headlines this week for driving under the influence of alcohol in Manhattan. Even though he won't start the game, Edwards should play in Week 3.

The Dolphins' defense has had its fair share of turnovers, forcing four in their Week 2 game against Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings. Miami has a very balanced offense, too, notching an average of 135 yards passing and 126 yards rushing per game.

However, the Jets have played two of the NFL's elite teams in the Patriots and the Ravens, while the Dolphins have beaten up on the Bills and the Vikings. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (pictured above) put a weak performance against the Ravens in Week 1 behind him and threw for 200 yards against the Patriots in Week 2.

Bessire's Take

: "I'm surprised actually that the Dolphins are favored, even at home. The offense hasn't shown it can do much, even though the defense has been great. They're missing weapons and are banged up, so I can't see the Dolphins putting up enough points at home against the Jets' defense, which should still be the top defense in the league even without Darrelle Revis. The Dolphins are still a .500 team or so. If you told me a .500 team is favored at home against a potential Super Bowl team, I'm obviously going to like the Jets to win outright. According to our simulations, the Jets cover 62.3% of the time but they only win outright about 55% of the time, so the likelihood is that this is a 1-to-2-point game."

The Pick: Jets +1.5

. As Bessire says, it's hard to understand why the Dolphins, who average only 261 yards per game on offense, are favored over a potential Super Bowl team like the Jets. The Dolphins score an average of 14.5 points per game against subpar teams, while the Jets give up an average of 12 points against tough opponents. This will be a low-scoring game, and in that situation it's hard not to favor the Jets, even on the road.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+2.5)

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for the first few games of the season, many expected the Steelers to hobble around until Big Ben made his return. Pittsburgh's defense, though, has been absolutely stellar in games against two high caliber opponents in the Falcons and the Titans, leading the team to a 2-0 start. The Steelers still have a question mark at the quarterback spot, with Charlie Batch stepping in for the injured starter Dennis Dixon.

The media has played the Dennis Dixon injury up, with some talking heads questioning how the Steelers offense will do under Batch. This is the type of noise a bettor has to ignore. The Steelers haven't won because of Dixon; Pittsburgh has won because of a great defensive unit. In the first two games of the season, Dixon averaged only 116 passing yards while the defense has allowed a minuscule amount of rushing yards and has forced a whopping eight turnovers.

Similarly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense has been the strong point of the team, forcing a total of six turnovers. Quarterback Josh Freeman (pictured above) has done fairly well in the first two weeks, passing for an average of 173 yards. Of course, the Buccaneers' performance on both offense and defense may be inflated because of the opponents they faced. The Cleveland Browns and the Carolina Panthers are nowhere near the same class as the Falcons and Titans.

Bessire's Take

: "I don't see Josh Freeman moving the ball against the Steelers. The Steelers stopped the running game against the Falcons and the Titans, which spells trouble for Freeman. I think he will have quite a bit of trouble stepping up against the Steelers after playing the Cleveland Browns and the Carolina Panthers. The Bucs are 2-0 and are at 18 in our power rankings, but I'm not sure they're that good. Their defensive numbers look really good, but they've played two really bad teams. I'm pleasantly surprised that it's only a 2.5-point spread in that game. Getting that extra half-point so that a field goal covers is a big deal for the Steelers, especially if the defense makes this a low-scoring game."

The Pick: Steelers -2.5

. Like Bessire says, Freeman hasn't seen a defense like the Steelers yet. Pittsburgh may not have a top star at the quarterback position, but it's managed to win low-scoring games thanks to solid defensive play. Whether its Dixon or Batch or even Byron Leftwich, the Steelers don't have to worry about the quarterback performance as long as the defense holds up.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston

.

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