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, 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.

The NFL schedules games based on how teams finish the previous season. Had that game gone the other way, assuming all other things remained the same, both the Jaguars and the Texans would have ended up with identical 7-9 records last season, with Houston finishing second in the AFC South division based on tiebreakers.

Because of the team's crazy last-minute win against the Texans, Jacksonville this season now has to play against the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers, two of the elite teams in the NFL. Houston, on the other hand, gets to play the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders, two of the lowest ranked teams in the league.

"This leapt off the screen at me. It plays directly into our probabilities on who is most likely to make it to the playoffs as well as the over-under win totals," Bessire says. "That difference in the schedule means a full win in either direction for both teams. That's enough to put Houston in the playoffs, eliminate Indianapolis from playoff contention, and give Jacksonville the worst record in the NFL."

If Bessire's model is true, the Jacksonville Jaguars last-minute catch in Week 10 last season could end up being the best thing or worst thing for that franchise, depending on how you look at it. The team could be the worst in the NFL this season, and yet they could have a chance to land college star Andrew Luck in next year's NFL draft. All of this, because of one fluke play almost 10 months ago.

This is what handicappers must do to prep for the NFL season. It's more than just looking at coaching changes or on-the-field personnel. It's more than judging rookies added from the current draft class. In order to determine who will be who and by how much, it is due to the intricacies of the NFL schedule more than, say, whether the turf is Bermuda grass, FieldTurf or Desso GrassMaster.

"The schedule itself is the big factor," Bessire says, pointing out that the Kansas City Chiefs have to play a significantly stronger schedule this year after playing one of the easiest schedules he's ever seen last year.

One of my personal favorite preseason rituals is to plot out the schedule of each team to find where some of the rough spots could come up. For example, if the Bears are still in the playoff hunt come December, they'll have to win three of their last four games on the road. The final two games of the season for the Bears are on the road against division opponents Green Bay and Minnesota.

There are plenty of other strange scheduling items that pop out at first glance. The Buffalo Bills have a grueling three-week stretch in November where they travel in consecutive weeks to Dallas, Miami and New York to play the Jets. The Cleveland Browns have a similar three-away-game jaunt in December against Pittsburgh, Arizona and Baltimore. However, the Browns could easily have seven wins before then thanks to a creampuff schedule against teams like Miami, Oakland, San Francisco, and Jacksonville. Tampa Bay only has two home contests in the team's final seven games of the season.

Teams regress from one season to the next, which is largely a product of scheduling. But even without the benefit of knowing a team's strength of schedule, it's easy to correctly speculate which teams will not have a repeat performance of last season.

Vegas oddsmakers, though, know that fandom trumps rational thinking. Seven of the eight teams with over/under win totals at 10 or above this seasons won 10 or more games last season. Is it reasonable to expect that type of dominance by that many teams again this season?

"In 2009 and 2010, only one team -- the New Orleans Saints -- won more than 10 games in both seasons," Bessire notes. "It's just not that likely to win 11 or more games year in and year out. For instance, Atlanta will naturally regress and come back to earth. To expect the Giants to get to 10 wins to cover that number is surprising."

There is one wrinkle that could affect how gamblers approach wagering on games this season. The NFL changed kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, which has led to more touchbacks than returns. The rule change may not have a material change to win totals for teams, but it could make a big difference in spread betting.

"The Chargers were burned on kickoff returns last season," Bessire says, specifically highlighting San Diego's Week 3 loss last season to the Seattle Seahawks. In that game, Seattle's Leon Washington returned two kickoffs for two touchdowns, including one in the fourth quarter to win the game.

Plays like those on special teams are what eventually sank the Chargers last season. "The new rule is only going to help a team like the Chargers who can now kick it into the end zone for more touchbacks," Bessire says.

Of course, Peyton Manning's slow recovery from offseason neck surgery has thrown more uncertainty into the mix. RJ Bell of notes that, at the start of the preseason, the Texans were given a 36% chance to win division. Current odds give them a 69% chance to unseat the Colts as the AFC South division winner.

"The Colts were initially 1-point favorites at Houston in Week 1. Now, they are 8.5-point underdogs," Bell writes in an email. "Peyton Manning is the only player in the NFL that would affect his team's odds by more than a touchdown."

Taking all of this and more into account, I've come up with a few over/under win total bets that I like in terms of value. Of course, my picks are strictly for entertainment purposes only. The ones that jump off the page at me are the Cleveland Browns at 7 wins, -110. The odds aren't that great for the bet, as you have to wager $110 to win $100, but Cleveland has a very competent young team and an easy schedule to start the season.

At 10.5 wins for the line, I think the Philadelphia Eagles won't be able to exceed the hook. The Eagles are a good team with a lot of amazing talent, but I get the feeling that this is a bit of a Miami Heat scenario. I question Michael Vick's durability, and it's unclear if Vince Young will be healthy enough as a backup QB due to his current hamstring injury. With the under paying you $130 for a $100 bet, there's some decent value in this pick, in my opinion.

I also think that the under bet for the New York Giants is a solid pick even at -120. The line of 9 wins seemed high even before the injury to CB Terrell Thomas, and it certainly looks outsized after the Giants lost him for the season. Division games against the Cowboys and Eagles will be brutal, and then the Giants still have games against the Patriots, Packers, Jets and Saints. Winning 10 games is anything but certain.

There are other intriguing bets out there, but there's little value in the odds. Titans over 6.5 wins, Bucs under 8 wins, Chargers over 10.5 wins, and Vikings over 7 wins all seem like perfectly good bets but will cost you at least $120 to win $100. Again, not much value for what seem to be sure things. If you really want to go out on a limb, Bills under 5.5 wins for +115 and Bengals over 5.5 wins for +130 might be fun bets to follow during the season.

That's all for this preview of the NFL betting season. I'll be back Thursday ahead of the season opener, in which the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers play host to the New Orleans Saints, to go over the Week 1 betting lines and offer my five picks against the spread for the week. See you then.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston.

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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