Against the Spread: 2011 NFL Picks: Week 2

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Crushed.

No, I'm not referring to the pathetic performance of the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Baltimore Ravens last week, at least not directly. I'm crushed because my NFL picks against the spread in Week 1 were a miserable 1-4. The Green Bay Packers pick was my lone success, while the Steelers, Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were massive disappointments, both on the field and for my overall record.

As it turns out, I wasn't alone in failing to pick well in Week 1. By my count, 80 participants in the Las Vegas Hilton's Super Contest fared as well or worse during Week 1. The rest of the 517 participants did better, although only three entrants were a perfect 5-0 last week. The Hilton's Super Contest is considered the top pool for sharp bettors, who put up $1,500 in order to win $200,000 by picking five games against the spread each week.

Some of those top bettors were fooled into picking several teams that failed to cover. The Baltimore Ravens crushed the Pittsburgh Steelers, the second most-picked team in Week 1 with 152 selections. The Atlanta Falcons (121), Tennessee Titans (124), Rams (145), Browns (106), and New York Jets (127) were among the teams selected most yet failed to beat the spread. Sadly, three of those teams lost for me in Week 1, too.

"People were paying far too much attention to the preseason to begin with, rather than where the teams should be," says Paul Bessire, the general manager and creator of the Web site PredictionMachine.com. His Prediction Machine is a quantitative way to break down NFL games as it simulates each contest 50,000 times to come up with a pick against the spread. "One needs to resist the urge to overcorrect. That bias to under- or overcorrect, we've always seen it historically throughout the NFL after Week 1."

A great example, Bessire says, is the way Cam Newton lit up the Arizona Cardinals for 423 passing yards in Week 1. People are lauding Newton's performance, but there's little mention that Carolina not only lost, they failed to cover the spread against a Cardinals team that had two brand-new cornerbacks for a defense that was already bad at stopping opponents' passing game. The entertaining performance by Newton as a rookie has a dramatic effect on the line of the game in Week 2 for the Panthers game against the Packers.

"Going into the season, this line might have been 15 or 16 points, but now it's only 10 points," Bessire says. "It's all because it appears Cam Newton knows how to throw a football. That's just one example, but in most people's mind, you need to resist the urge to change your view on any of these teams. The group who bets early is already wary of this, and they jump out ahead of the public."

"I'm just trying not to fall into the traps of overanalyzing Week 1 results," says Bryan Leonard, a professional sports handicapper with Pregame.com. Leonard is part of the Tuesday Group, a collection of professional bettors in Vegas who get together to handicap the games each week. "People have these preconceived ideas for all of these teams."

Briefly, here are some of the betting trends we saw from Week 1. For moneyline bets, favorites were 10-6, while underdogs were 9-7 against the spread. The most interesting stat pulled from those numbers, though, was the outperformance of road dogs, with four as actual outright winners ( Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, and Detroit Lions). Even more shocking was the amount of "over" bets that were winners. In fact, as a reaction to having over/under totals too low, Vegas has raised the totals for Week 2 almost across the board.

With that, let's get on to the picks for Week 2 of the NFL season. As I'll remind you through the entire season, these are for entertainment purposes only. Once again, I have enlisted the help of PredictionMachine.com's Paul Bessire, who offers analysis of the data his model provides for the games I've picked this week.

I've also collected commentary on each game from Pregame.com's Bryan Leonard. His analysis focuses on the spread movement by Vegas oddsmakers to determine where the public and professional money is moving on each game. These trends prove to be critical for bettors who are on the hunt for inefficiencies and value.

Click on to read the first game preview, the Baltimore Ravens against the Tennessee Titans.

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans (+6)

The Ravens exacted revenge last week in the shellacking of division rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, most NFL power rankings have Baltimore in the top 5 among New England, Green Bay and Philadelphia. But is the public now all over this team heading into a Week 2 matchup against a clearly outmatched Tennessee Titans team?

With a +6 line giving points to the Titans and an over/under line of 38, Vegas oddsmakers are saying they expect a final score of 22-16 for a Baltimore win, and that definitely sounds about right. The last time these two teams played during the regular season was on Oct. 5, 2008, when Kerry Collins led the Titans to a 13-10 victory in Baltimore.

The Ravens have a much different offense from three years ago, when Willis McGahee, Todd Heap and Mark Clayton were all targets for QB Joe Flacco. On the other hand, Titans running back Chris Johnson is the only remaining offensive weapon from that 2008 regular season game. In other words, don't rely too heavily on the historical matchup for clues as to how this game shakes out.

The one worry I have is Baltimore's ability to stop Chris Johnson. The Ravens allowed only 66 yards to the Steelers last week, but it was on a measly 16 attempts, translating to a not-horrible 4.1 yards per carry. I don't mean to take away from the Ravens' impressive Week 1 victory, but they certainly got lucky with three interceptions off Ben Roethlisberger (one returned for a touchdown) and four recovered fumbles.

In Week 1, the Titans averaged only 3.3 yards per carry, gaining 43 yards on 13 rushing attempts without the full services of Johnson. He's back starting in Week 2, according to reports. The question is whether his addition will be enough for the offense to click. During Johnson's rookie season in 2008, he put up some of his worst numbers of the season against Baltimore, which is a cause for concern.

How the Titans defense will perform is a more pressing issue. The Jags amassed 163 rushing yards against Tennessee in Week 1, but they gained only 3.5 yards per attempt as Jacksonville ran the ball 47 times. That eased up the load on QB Luke McCown, who threw for only 175 yards.

"Baltimore was the most impressive team in Week 1, so any reaction to them could be justified because they took out one of the best teams in the NFL," says Bessire. "The young players they added showed they could play. We expected that to happen, but not right off the bat. They're a better team than we expected, and they more than proved that last week. I'm surprised this hasn't moved up past a touchdown on the public wagering."

Leonard says he made the rating on this game a week in advance and came to a line of Baltimore -5. "If it was -7, Tennessee would clearly be the way to go," he says. "I'm not overly impressed with the Titans quarterback situation, and Baltimore could defensively put the clamps on Tennessee. I'm just not sure that Baltimore offensively will be able to score enough points to cover this number. This line is about where it should be."

The Pick: Ravens -6 If this line went to a full touchdown, I'd rethink this pick, but I would probably come to the same pick even at -7. It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that Chris Johnson could run all over a Ravens defense that is coming down after a huge Week 1 beat-down of a bitter rival at home. It's easy to talk yourself into picking the underdog because the public will be heavily betting the favorite. But the Ravens are undoubtedly the better team. I won't overthink this one.

Oakland Raiders at Buffalo Bills (-3.5)

Two years ago, I would've loathed the prospect of watching this game. Now, the battle between two unexpected 1-0 teams is one of the most compelling matchup of the early afternoon slate of games.

With a line of -3.5 and an over/under line of 42.5, Vegas expects Buffalo to beat Oakland Sunday afternoon by a score of 23 to 19.5. The hook makes this game a lot more unattractive than a -3, but given the circumstances, Buffalo bettors should be happy the line isn't higher.

The Raiders outperformed expectations last season to end with eight wins. And they did enough to win a sloppy road game in Week 1 against division opponents the Denver Broncos. It took a 63-yard field goal to seal the victory on Monday night.

But there seems to be too much working against the Raiders for a repeat in Week 2. This is a second road game for Oakland. They're traveling to the Eastern time zone, where they lost three of three games last season by a combined 64 points. After a very late Monday victory in Denver, they now must play at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. PT).

Oakland isn't a pushover, though. The Raiders held the Broncos to only 38 rushing yards in Week 1 on a scant 13 attempts. By comparison, the Raiders ran the ball 39 times for 190 yards. That brings us to the Bills, who allowed 108 rushing yards to the Chiefs, one of the most successful running teams last year, in Week 1. That total came on only 18 rushing attempts; The Bills have to do a much better job at stopping the run if they want to go 2-0, especially with Darren McFadden coming to town.

Should we believe in 29-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick after he threw for four touchdowns with an amazing 8.3 passing yards per attempt?

"A trend to our 10-1 start to the Paul's Picks has been taking road teams," Bessire says of his top picks for Week 1. "We are 8-1 taking road teams in general and 3-0 taking road underdogs. Buffalo's run defense is one of the worst in the league and allowed over 6 yards-per-carry to the Chiefs, who should not have abandoned the run so early against Buffalo. Darren McFadden has a huge game in a contest that is close to 50/50 in the numbers, which makes +3.5 appealing. McFadden should have a huge game against one of the worst run defenses in the league."

"I was looking to go against Buffalo in this situation, but I do not want to go against the West Coast team playing late Monday to play early Sunday," Leonard says. "That's a bad situation over the years. There is a slight edge with Oakland, though, because I thought the line would out at 1.5 or 2 points. The way Buffalo looked in Week 1 had nothing to do with Buffalo and everything to do with Kansas City."

The Pick: Bills -3.5 I don't like mediocre teams on the road for a second week getting less than 6 points, no matter who the team is. Flying east for a 1 p.m. ET game has not been a kind trip to the Raiders in the last year. There is no reason to believe that won't continue, even if the Bills don't put up the impressive stats the team did in Week 1. The most exploitable matchup is McFadden against the Buffalo run defense, which makes me nervous with this pick, but I still think this is a decent play even with the hook.

Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers (+10)

This game is a perfect case of the public overreacting to Week 1 performances.

You have the champs, the Packers, one of the most public of public teams, laying only 10 points to a team that won only two (!!) games in 2010. Sure, the Carolina Panthers are better this year thanks to the addition of rookie Cam Newton, but this is still a team that lost by double digits in 12 games last season.

The +10 line and over/under total of 46 means Vegas expects the Packers to win this game by a score of 28-18. The Packers have the ability to score more than 28 points in this game, and it's a high probability the Panthers don't make it to 18 points, given the dominance of the Packers defense.

Forgetting for a moment that Cam Newton played out of his mind last week against a terrible defense, the Panthers suffered a tough loss on defense as linebacker Jon Beason tore his Achilles tendon and will be out for the year. That's a tough break for a defense that now has to contend with one of the highest caliber offenses in the NFL.

"In normal situations, I tread lightly with double-digit lines in the NFL because it's hard to predict motivation," Bessire says. "We have built in ways to have less confidence when lines move up to double digits in the NFL. But this is a 10-point line, not a 14-point line. It's not enough. It's an overreaction to Cam Newton after he found a wide open Steve Smith to light up a team with two new cornerbacks. He's still a rookie quarterback making his second-ever start against the defending Super Bowl champions. It's one of the best defenses in the league."

"I'll be on Green Bay this week," says Leonard. "You have one of the best defenses in the NFL going against a rookie quarterback off a good performance. I want no part of Carolina. They're one of the worst three teams in the NFL. The wise guys know that double-digit line in the NFL has been a bad proposition. But if you have a quarterback mismatch, it's a huge advantage."

The Pick: Packers -10 I am going to literally be on my hands and knees Sunday praying the Panthers don't have a backdoor cover. That said, if you're the defending Super Bowl champs looking to repeat, you go on the road and you wallop bad teams. I tend to think Newton's Week 1 performance in the exception, not the norm. Welcome back to earth, Cam.

Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons (+2.5)

I'm forced to pick many of these games when the lines come out Monday, and now that we're at Thursday I feel a little sheepish for picking this as one of the five games for my column. I'll be honest: I'm not a believer in the dream-team Eagles, as evidenced by my selection of the St. Louis Rams in Week 1. But I also have little faith in the Falcons, despite the team's strong showing in 2010.

The Falcons won 13 games last season, although the Pythagorean wins expectations was around 11. The Pythagorean formula, which uses the differential of points scored and allowed to gauge how many games should have won, is a powerful tool for predicting what happens in the following season. That two game difference for the Falcons is an indication the team should regress this season after outperforming last year. We already saw that in Week 1, as the Falcons lost in a miserable performance to another team that should face the same regression, the Chicago Bears.

Atlanta is an attractive pick, though, based on the Falcons' success at home. Then again, this is essentially the same Atlanta team that lost 31-17 to essentially this same Eagles team in Week 6 last season in Philadelphia. The Eagles won that game with Kevin Kolb as quarterback, so while the Falcons will trot out the same team this week, they will face a new-look Philly team with Michael Vick on offense and new additions Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha on defense.

Based on Vegas picking the Eagles as the favorite and an over/under total of 49.5, Philly should win this game by a score of 26-23.5. For a team that has been as the Falcons have been at home, plus given that this is the Eagles' second road game in as many weeks, some find it odd the Eagles are favored by oddsmakers.

"It was surprising for me to see Philly favored in this game because of how good Atlanta has been at home," Bessire says. "Even though Michael Vick was running for his life in Week 1 behind his offensive line, he still was able to win that game handily. Atlanta is better than St. Louis, but they really didn't look that good. Jay Cutler picked apart the defense last week and, on offense, Atlanta failed to gain momentum. Atlanta will be better this week, but Philadelphia is a really good team and they should be favored over anyone else in the NFL."

Leonard, on the other hand, likes the Falcons to rebound at home in Atlanta. "The futures had this game previously with Atlanta as a 3-point favorite, so the line has moved 5.5 points based on what happened last week," he says. "I'm not buying into it. Atlanta is a real strong home team. They looked about as bad as they possibly could last week. I'm not throwing out my entire preseason research of Philadelphia being an overrated team based on basically 2.5 quarters of real football last week. If I see a +3, I'm jumping on Atlanta. If I don't see a +3, I'll probably tease it from 2.5 to 8.5. I don't see how you can play Philadelphia here."

The Pick: Eagles -2.5 I don't believe this will be a convincing win for the Eagles, and I am nervous that a lot of public money is likely pouring in on Philly, especially after how the Eagles' and Falcons' Week 1 games went. But with the line below -3, I think there's a lot of value here on the favorite. A 3-point victory for the Eagles sounds just about right. That small margin between expectations and the line is one of the reasons I regret making this game one of my column picks this week, so here's hoping Vick's return to Atlanta is a triumphant one.

St. Louis Rams at New York Giants (-5.5)

It's the Super Bowl of injured teams!

It is truly stunning how two teams like the Rams and Giants could be so ravaged by injuries before the start of Week 2. The Giants have been missing players like Justin Tuck, Terrell Thomas and Osi Umenyiora before the season even began, while St. Louis suffered some debilitating injuries last week. Given the mismatch between the quality of players that have been injured, there's some value in picking this snooze of a Monday night game.

Vegas oddsmakers, in assigning and over/under total of 44, are essentially saying the Giants should win at home by a score of roughly 24.5 to 20. While it's tough for me to see Eli Manning and the offense put up that many points against a team now coached by the former defensive coordinator for New York, I doubt the Rams offense has enough firepower now to put up 20 on the Giants.

You've probably been hammered over the head by now about the Rams injuries. QB Sam Bradford hurt the fingers on his throwing hand last week, although he should be ready to go Monday night. Running back Steven Jackson went missing in Week 1 after a quad injury following only two carries, one of which was a 47-yard touchdown run. Danny Amendola, one of the most productive offensive players for St. Louis last season, is out with an elbow injury for three months.

However, it's the loss of cornerback Ron Bartell that is most painful for St. Louis. Bartell suffered several small fractures in his neck during the Rams' loss to Philadelphia in Week 1, and he is now out for the season. That one injury has now deflated expectations for the Rams, who were once considered contenders to win the NFC West division crown this season.

"Bartell is key to the defense, and they've lost him for the season," says Bessire. "With the other injuries to Bradford, Jackson and Amendola, it means a lot more to the Rams than anything the Giants have seen. The defense for the Giants isn't great after losing key players to injury, but they'll get better as they move forward. Without Bartell and other banged-up players, it's a completely different scenario."

That's not to say the Giants are looking to be on solid foundation. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has a knee injury, and it's unclear whether he'll be able to go Monday night. Defensive end Tuck also stands a chance to play Monday. However, tight end Travis Beckum, cornerback Prince Amukamara and defensive end Umenyiora will all likely sit for the Giants' home opener.

"I don't know at this point what my thoughts are on this game," Leonard says, noting that Vegas oddsmakers opened with a line of -6, which went down to -4.5 and is now hovering around -5.5. "I don't know what condition Bradford is in. It all comes down to injuries. Without injuries, my line is -6. The futures were at -7. I'd like to play St. Louis in this game, but with the injuries, this is a game of attrition. I hate to see this as a Monday night game, as it won't have the value of watching it. This one probably won't be on my card."

The Picks: Giants -5.5 The public is down on the Giants after the team lost against division rivals the Washington Redskins last week. And I'm always wary of picking against a team where the head coach, in this case Steve Spagnuolo, returns home to face a team he once coached. Bessire, though, puts my mind at ease regarding this issue. "If Spagnuolo was able to bring a healthy team with him to New York, I'd buy the argument," he says. For less than a touchdown, I feel pretty good with the Giants this week.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston.

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