Against the Spread: 2010 NFL Picks: Week 4

TheStreet offers picks against the spread for five NFL games in Week 4.
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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- There's no need to fear in picking NFL Week 4 games against the spread, the underdogs are here!

My against-the-spread pick record for this young 2010 NFL season stands now at 8-7 through three weeks, after rightly selecting the

Pittsburgh Steelers

,

Tennessee Titans

and

New York Jets

last week. Two of those picks turned out to be values, as the Titans and Jets were underdogs in their respective Week 3 games.

>>College Football Picks: Week 5

As it turns out, betting on the underdogs has been the way to beat Las Vegas sports books. Against the spread, the 'dogs had a record of 10-5 with one push in Week 2 and a record of 11-5 in Week 3. Seven underdog teams, including the Jets and Titans, managed to win their games outright last week. As the public tends to bet big on favorites, Vegas has reaped the rewards of two straight winning weeks for the underdogs.

Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars)

I spent a majority of this week on the phone with

fund managers

who spoke at length about

value investing

in uncertain times. The same is true when it comes to betting on NFL games; sharp investors will look for the greater value through inefficiencies that exist, which often leads them to underdog picks.

"Everything that I would recommend from a money management standpoint has to do with expected value," Paul Bessire, the general manager and creator of the Web site

PredictionMachine.com

. In my

Week 3 article

, Bessire spoke about picking NFL games as a long-term investment, at least if you view a 17-week NFL season as long term.

"Finding the value is key in exploiting inefficiencies in the market," Bessire says. "Sometimes, as it is this week, it's more so with favorites than underdogs. When playing favorites, it's more difficult to be comfortable with your expected outcome. But as long as it's positive value, you're always moving forward with your investment, whether you hit or not."

Part of calculating expected value involves ranking the NFL teams based on your valuation approach. For instance, if using yards-per-play differentials -- a key tool employed by handicappers -- the

San Diego Chargers

are at the top of the class with a YPP differential of roughly +2.05. The Steelers,

Philadelphia Eagles

and

Chicago Bears

also rank near the top with a positive YPP differential.

On the flip side, the

Jacksonville Jaguars

rank at the bottom, with a YPP differential of -2.51. The

Detroit Lions

, the

Buffalo Bills

and the

St. Louis Rams

are also, unsurprisingly, at the bottom of the ladder.

Turnover differential is also key, as it plays on the logic that a team that turns the ball over fewer times than it forces a turnover has a distinct advantage. That creates a value that can be exploited by smart bettors. In this case, the Steelers and Jets are at the top of the rankings with a +6 turnover differential, while the

Carolina Panthers

and, perhaps surprisingly, the

Baltimore Ravens

are at the bottom with a -6 turnover differential.

According to Bessire's own system, the Steelers come in at the top of his power rankings. "To me, the power rankings are the coolest thing we do with our technology. We simulate every team against every other team 50,000 times and then rank them by winning percentage. The Steelers have such a dominant defense that, even without Ben Roethlisberger, they rank a distant first."

The Rams, on the other hand, are at the bottom of Bessire's rankings. Even though the team managed to upset the

Washington Redskins

in Week 3 (and in doing so, dealt me a losing pick for my survival/knockout pool selections), Bessire says the Rams simply don't have the talent to improve enough to crawl out of the basement.

In keeping with the idea of exploiting a perceived value, it's time to look at my picks against the spread for Week 4. Bessire has once again offered his comments on each of my five picks based on results from the

PredictionMachine's

50,000 individual game simulations. Read on for the first game preview, the Jets at the

Buffalo Bills

.

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills (+5)

While the Jets represented a winning pick for me in Week 3, my assertion that the

New England Patriots

would cover the 14-point spread as favorites over the hapless Bills was incorrect. I also incorrectly believed before the Week 2 slate of games that the

Green Bay Packers

would be unable to beat the Bills by more than two touchdowns. Boy, was I wrong.

In Week 4, the Bills find themselves as the underdog again, this time by a spread that is less than a touchdown. On the other hand, the Jets are favored after upsetting the Dolphins in Miami in Week 3. One reason for the narrower-than-expected spread may be the emergence (if we can call it that) of Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (pictured above), who now has the starting job after throwing for 240 yards against the Patriots last week. The Bills eventually cut former QB Trent Edwards during the week. The fate of Buffalo's offense, it appears, now rests with Fitzpatrick.

The optimism over the Bills' strong Week 3 performance is wrong, in my opinion. Fitzpatrick looked good against a terrible Patriots secondary. Let us not forget that Fitzpatrick has a losing record for his career (8-14-1) and more interceptions (29) than touchdowns (23) in his time with Buffalo, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

On the other hand, it's difficult to feel extremely confident in picking the Jets. The team is coming off a strong win at divisional rival Miami on Sunday night. A slightly quicker turnaround, a second straight divisional road game and a hangover from the victory over the Dolphins could all conspire against the Jets. It's also crucial to note that the Jets' offense has been propping this team up, as the defense isn't performing as well as the media may have you believe. The Jets defense is forcing turnovers in every game, but the unit gives up an average of 336 total yards per game, with nearly 275 of those yards coming through the air.

Bessire's Take

: "The Bills are still the Bills. Just because they were able to put 30 points up against the Patriots doesn't mean that this team should be able to replicate that consistently. The Bills aren't quite as bad as they looked against the Packers or as good as they were against the Patriots. I think the Jets' offense has proven over a short time period that they are a better offense than they were in the first game of the season against Baltimore. According to our metrics, which looks at strength of schedule and adjusted offensive and defensive numbers, the Jets rushing offense ranks in the top 5 and the passing offense is in the top 10. The entire Jets offense is probably among the top 10 in the NFL."

The Pick: Jets -5

. If the line was a touchdown or more, I would probably abstain from including this one in this week's column, but the Jets are only giving 5 points. The Jets defense may not be as great as everyone thinks it is, but it's certainly better than the Patriots. In addition, the Jets have rushed for over 200 yards in each of the last two weeks. The Bills' defense, which gives up an average of 141 rushing yards per game, is going to spend a

long

time on the field Sunday.

Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers (-14.5)

Penalties will kill a team, as they buried the Packers in a tough road loss to the

Chicago Bears

on Monday night. The Packers now return home to host another division opponent, the Detroit Lions, with a very quick turnaround time. The short week of preparation will likely involve putting an end to costly penalties. In the loss to the Bears, Green Bay committed 18 penalties to give up 152 yards. For a team already struggling on offense after Ryan Grant's injury, Green Bay can't continue this trend.

That said, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (pictured above) should feast on the Lions' defense, which has been miserable. Detroit's defense surrenders an average of 413 yards to opposing teams, with nearly 150 of those yards coming on the ground. The offense has managed to put points on the board against some good defensive teams, notably the Vikings and the Bears.

The point spread in last week's Detroit game was the first time this season that Detroit was a double-digit underdog. The Lions failed to cover the 11-point spread, losing by two touchdowns to a banged-up Vikings team that was desperate for a win.

Bessire's Take

: "It wouldn't surprise me if this game looked a lot like the Week 2 game between Green Bay and Buffalo. Detroit is a better team than the Bills, but they're on the road. For the Packers, they're playing a bottom 5 team in the league, so they should win by at least a couple touchdowns. The 14.5 line is tough to cover as it's a significant number of points. That said, the Packers are at least two touchdowns better than the Lions, even considering all the penalties they incur."

The Pick: Packers -14.5

. The Lions are the cure for what ails the Packers. The Lions' best week on offense came when the team put up garbage points in a 35-32 loss to the Eagles, who replaced injured QB Kevin Kolb with Michael Vick. Having to travel on the road for the second time in two weeks ends up being a bad situation for the Lions, who are still winless. If the Packers are truly the playoff-caliber team that they're made out to be, they win this game in a convincing fashion.

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints (-13.5)

The Panthers/Saints game is another example in Week 4 of a divisional game where the favorite is giving roughly 14 points. It also involves a playoff-caliber team in the Saints that endured a crushing loss in Week 3 as well as a winless opponent, in this case the Panthers.

While I expect the Packers to get back on track and win big against the Lions, the opposite seems true for the Saints. The once high-powered offense is averaging a meek 57 yards per game rushing the ball. Quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense had a very high 7.11 yards-per-play figure last week, but failed to break above 5 YPP in the previous two games. On the defensive side, the Saints surrender a lot of yards on the ground (145 YPG).

That said, the Carolina Panthers are in the conversation over who is the worst team in the NFL. There are questions about the ability of the team's starting quarterback, as rookie Jimmy Clausen (pictured above) has replaced Matt Moore. The inexperience at the position has shone through in the offensive stats, with the Panthers gaining about 260 yards total per game. The offense is also turnover happy, coughing the ball up an average of four times per game to opposing defenses.

Bessire's Take

: "The outcome of our analysis did surprise me, as I assumed the 13.5 point line was either appropriate or that the Saints should be able to cover it. The 'should' is obviously a lot different than what the numbers suggest they 'will.' Except for the first drive of the season, the Saints have not been able to move the ball in an explosive manner against anyone. In addition, the Saints' defense hasn't been as opportunistic as it was last season, especially in the red zone. That could allow the Panthers to put some points on the board this week in a better fashion than they have. The Carolina offense is not very good, but it should be good enough to keep it a 12- or 13-point game rather than a 14- or 15-point game. We're not looking into win/loss records, we look at exploiting weaknesses. In this case, the Saints' strengths aren't enough to exploit the Panthers' weaknesses to a degree of two touchdowns."

The Pick: Panthers +13.5

. I agree with Bessire's sentiments, and I will add that a lot of pressure will be off Clausen and the Panthers offense if the team can exploit the weakness of the Saints run defense. The Panthers have managed roughly 100 YPG rushing the ball. If Panthers coach John Fox is smart, he'll run the ball down the Saints' throat and keep the ball out of Clausen's hands as much as possible.

Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams (+1)

Could a team with a losing record really win the NFC West this year?

Bessire believes so. He says the Prediction Machine expects the Seahawks to notch their third win of the season this week, but will only win four more games during the remainder of the season. Even with a 7-9 record, though, Bessire says his analysis has the Seahawks winning the division.

Perhaps that is a view too far down the road. Looking only at the coming weekend, the Seahawks should put a lot of points up against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. But the numbers aren't particularly inspiring. The Seahawks haven't done a tremendous job running the ball, and the offense has turned the ball over in each of the first three games. Last week, Seattle's defense allowed Chargers QB Philip Rivers to throw for more than 400 yards against them. While Seattle has looked terrific at home, the lone game they have played on the road this season was brutal, as the Seahawks lost to Denver 31-14.

The Rams flexed some muscle last week at home against the Redskins, as the offense had more than 100 rushing yards for the first time this season. However, the Rams give up 377 YPG to opposing teams' offenses. After trouncing the Redskins 30-16 last week, the public may be a little too hot for the Rams.

Bessire's Take

: "Neither of these teams is very good. We rank the Rams as the worst team, and the Seahawks are ranked 21 out of 32. Again, on the opportunistic front, the Seahawks have an ability to create turnovers that is much better than anticipated. The Rams still aren't very good, and even playing at home they wouldn't be favored straight-up to win any games. They looked like the better team against the Redskins last week, but if they played that game again we'd still expect the Redskins to win."

The Pick: Seahawks -1

. If Seattle were giving more points, this would be a much harder decision. With a spread of only 1 point, this essentially comes down to picking the straight-up winner, which I believe is the Seahawks in this case. It should be noted that against the Seahawks, the Rams are 0-3 against the spread during home games and 0-6 overall since 2007. It's hard to bet against that trend, especially when the Rams lose to the Seahawks by an average of 16 points per game.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (-1)

I've had this game circled on the calendar weeks before the season began, and it's even more interesting now considering the performance of each team.

Before Week 1, I had no idea what type of team the Steelers would be as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for four games. The defense, I knew, would depend on the health of Troy Polamalu (pictured above), who missed much of last season due to injury. The biggest surprise hasn't been the performance of stand-in QB Charlie Batch, but the incredible performance of the Steelers defense, which is ranked at the top of the NFL. As I wrote earlier in this article, Bessire rates the Steelers' No. 1 overall in his power rankings, and with good reason.

On the other hand, it has been tough to be a Ravens fan as a witness to the regression of the team's offense. QB Joe Flacco was expected to grow into the position but clearly has not, throwing for a minuscule average of 213 YPG. While the Ravens' defense has been great rushing the passer, the unit gives up nearly 130 YPG to opposing running backs. The defense has forced just one turnover, while the offense has given the ball up seven times.

Fundamental factors will also play a role in this game, much to the detriment of Baltimore. The Steelers return home for the first time since beating the Falcons in Week 1, so the crowd is sure to be electric for the unbeaten team. On the other hand, the Ravens are playing their third road game in four weeks.

Bessire's Take

: "It really surprises me this line is so low. I'm curious as to what this line would be if the Steelers had the same exact numbers with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. The line would probably be 2 points higher than this for a 3-point margin. With Charlie Batch at quarterback, it does make a bit of a difference in our simulations. However, the Steelers look so dominant on defense and the Ravens have been so poor on offense that we would expect Baltimore to have a very tough time scoring points. Joe Flacco's numbers this year are incredibly weak relative to where we expected him to be progressing from year to year, and Ray Rice has been injured, which hasn't made the running game very efficient. That's where this game will be won or lost."

The Pick: Steelers -1

. As Bessire noted, the line on this game seems entirely too low. The Steelers have the advantage in turnover differential (+6 compared to the Ravens' -6) as well as yards-per-play differential (+1.07 vs. the Ravens' +0.25). Add in home field advantage and I believe the margin for victory could be more than a touchdown in the Steelers' favor.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston

.

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