NFL Edition: End-of-Season Handicapping Is a Whole New Ball Game

Among the factors to consider: Is the coach in solid or on his way out? And how's the weather?
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Last week's results illustrated two propositions. First, making selections on Monday without having a chance to read the "local" newspapers leading up to the games is bad for your betting health. Second, picking too many favorites in the NFL is the road to the poorhouse. We will follow our own advice this week. We were 0-5 last week, bringing our season record back below the .500 level at 21-24 (47%).

At this stage of the NFL season, we must begin looking at a number of new handicapping factors:

1.

If a team is out of the playoffs, is the coach secure in his job? Of course, it could be the coach is in the first or second year of a five-year contract, or that the coach has had so much success in the past that an aberrant year will not result in his firing. I put the following teams in that category: the

New York

Jets,

Pittsburgh

Steelers,

Kansas City

Chiefs,

Chicago

Bears,

Atlanta

Falcons,

San Francisco

49ers,

Baltimore

Ravens,

Carolina

Panthers,

Philadelphia

Eagles,

Denver

Broncos,

San Diego

Chargers and

Cleveland

Browns. These teams are more likely to try to evaluate their young talent during the latter part of the season.

The teams where the coach is in jeopardy of losing his job: the

New York

Giants,

New Orleans

Saints,

Cincinnati

Bengals,

Washington

Redskins,

Arizona

Cardinals,

Oakland

Raiders (Al Davis has a quick trigger finger) and the

New England

Patriots. These coaches will likely try to win as many games as possible to save their jobs, and will not sacrifice the present for the future.

2.

Is a team in a "must-win" situation? The public always bets on these teams, and the oddsmaker always inflates the odds in favor of these teams.

Do not

bet on teams simply because they are in a must-win situation. While I do not have the statistics to back up this claim (because they are not kept by anyone in a public forum), my 20-plus years of betting experience tells me that a must-win situation often creates a poor performance by the must-win team because of the pressure placed on its players. The opposing team will almost always "get up" for the game and play well because there is no pressure on them and the only satisfaction the players on that team will get for the season is playing the role of spoiler. This season we will keep statistics on teams in must-win situations.

3.

What will the weather be like? Teams that run the ball well will perform better in cold, inclement weather, while teams that emphasize passing will have problems. Teams that have the best running games in our opinion: the

Indianapolis

Colts,

St. Louis

Rams,

Minnesota

Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals. The teams with the best run defenses are the New York Giants,

Miami

Dolphins,

Baltimore

Ravens,

Detroit

Lions,

Denver

Broncos, San Diego Chargers and

Tampa Bay

Buccaneers. The teams with the biggest differentials between yards per rush (YPR) on offense, and yards per rush allowed on defense are St. Louis (1.1 YPR differential), San Francisco (0.9 YPR differential), Baltimore (0.8 YPR differential), Oakland (0.6 YPR differential) and Philadelphia (0.6 YPR differential).

This Week's Picks

Tampa Bay (plus 2 1/2) over Minnesota

Last year, Minnesota went to Tampa Bay and suffered its first defeat of the season as the Bucs ran the ball down the throat of the Viking defense -- a defense that permitted the inept offense of the San Diego Chargers to score 27 points last week. The public is still enamored with the Vikings even though they have a horrible defense. Having Shawn King replace Trent Dilfer as the QB is a plus, not a minus, in my book, particularly since the Bucs should be able to run all over the Viking defense. If, as we expect, Tampa Bay can run on the Vikings, King will be successful on play-action passes because the Vikings primarily play zone defense and the 10-yard passes will be available to King because the Minnesota linebackers will be busy trying to stop the run. There is no doubt that the Vikings have a high-powered offense, but Tampa Bay's defense is one of, if not

the

, best in the NFL. We'll take the points with the home underdog on

Monday Night Football

.

Cincinnati (minus 3) over San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago, we noted that the 49ers had joined the dregs of the NFL. The Bengals, while possessing a terrible record, have played hard every week. One of the statistics I like to look at in handicapping games is a team's recent performance. In the last three games, the 49ers have averaged 5.3 points per game and given up 22.3 points. It has a negative yard-per-point differential of 39.5.

The Bengals have averaged 24 points per game and given up 26 points per game. Its yard-per-point differential is a positive 2.2. The line in this game treats these two teams as even, with the Bengals receiving three points for home-field advantage. While the Bengals are not worldbeaters, they are playing decent football at this stage of the season, something that cannot be said for the 49ers. And, as we discussed earlier in this column, the Bengals are one of the teams that will have their veterans playing because coach Bruce Coslet is trying to save his job, while the 49ers appear to have thrown in the towel and will be playing their young players. San Francisco's defensive performance was embarrassing last week and the team has suffered massive injuries to its secondary. The Bengals, who have a good passing attack, will exploit the 49ers secondary all day long and the pop-gun offense of San Francisco will simply not be able to keep up.

Seattle (plus 1) over Oakland

We think Seattle can bounce back from its disappointing home loss last week. Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren will put together his usual perfect game plan and we expect QB Jon Kitna to play a more disciplined game than last week. Each week Kitna gets to practice with WR Joey Galloway will improve their timing, and we expect to see some big-yardage passing plays against a mediocre Raider secondary. Oakland is an undisciplined team, and seems to get penalties at the most inopportune times. QB Rich Gannon's broken left wrist limits his scrambling ability -- he winces every time he gets hit on the wrist. Seattle is a playoff team while the Raiders are not. The Raiders have lost their last two games against

AFC West

foes and no longer have a strong home-field advantage -- they're 9-12 straightup (SU) in their last 21 home games. We think the Seahawks will win this game SU and will take any points available

Dallas (plus 2 1/2) over New England

The Cowboys are getting healthier and QB Troy Aikman is starting to gain a better rapport with his receivers, particularly Raghib "Rocket" Ishmael. Patriot coach Pete Carroll is under fire in Boston and QB Drew Bledsoe has been intercepted nine times in his last four games, and sacked 14 times in the same span. The Dallas defense is playing extremely well and has allowed opponents an average of only 8.7 points in the last three games while the Pats have averaged only 13.7 points in their last three games on offense. New England is a poor rushing team to begin with, and we don't think it will solve those problems against the Cowboys. Deion Sanders will be lining up opposite Terry Glenn and we think Sanders has the speed to do a good job against Glenn. Emmitt Smith is regaining his early-season form and should keep the Patriot linebackers from blitzing Aikman with reckless abandon. The Patriot's woes will continue in this Sunday night game, and we expect to hear some "Carroll must go" chants from the drunk, rowdy and disappointed New England crowd.

New York Jets (minus 2 1/2) over New York Giants

In this battle for the Big Apple (played in New Jersey) the coaching advantage with Bill Parcells over Jim Fassel is at least three points. While the crowd will be predominantly Giant fans, the offensive edges in this game all belong to the Jets. The Giants started the season with one of the top-3 defenses in the NFL, but in the last three weeks, they have given up an average of 4 yards per rush attempt and 28 points per game. Last week the Cardinals relentlessly picked on Phillipe Sparks and we are sure that Parcells took notice. WR Keyshawn Johnson's height will give the Giants' secondary some problems, and Wayne Chrebet and Dedric Ward will catch many short passes as Parcells will keep the offense simplified for Ray Lucas. The Giants' offense is terrible, and after last week's performance it doesn't appear that Kerry Collins is the answer. Jets defensive coordinator Bill Belichek will pressure Collins and force him into bad decisions, and we expect the Jets to pick off at least two of Collins' passes. This will be a low-scoring game and we need the Jets to win only by a field goal to win our bet.

6-point teaser:
San Diego (minus1 1/2) over Cleveland; and
Indianapolis (plus 8 1/2) over the Dolphins

We will try this 6-point teaser because we don't think Cleveland's rookie QB, Tim Couch, will be able to handle the blitzes thrown at him by the Chargers' defense. But because we still don't trust the Chargers' offense to put a lot of points on the board, we don't feel comfortable laying 7 1/2 points. We do feel comfortable that the Chargers will win the game SU, or in this case by at least two points. We went back and forth on a regular bet on the Indianapolis-Miami game and concluded that it was too tough a call in light of the Dolphins' 7-1 SU home record. But we do think Indianapolis is one of the two best teams in the AFC right now, and would not be surprised if it avenges its earlier defeat by the Dolphins. Because Jimmy Johnson has turned into one of the league's most conservative coaches, we think that taking more than a touchdown with the Colts on a teaser is the best way to go in this game.

Barry Lieberman is the general counsel for a Las Vegas gaming company and an associate of James Padinha. He's been an amateur gambler for more than 20 years, and welcomes your feedback at

barrylieberman1@prodigy.net.