Against the Spread: 2011 NFL Picks: Week 3

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Transparency is just as important in picking NFL games against the spread as it is with, say, performance of one's stock portfolio. Admitting losses and being culpable for losses is the best way to learn from bad picks and hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes, whether it's a bad bet on the Buffalo Bills or Netflix (NFLX).

Though I'm not happy to admit I'm 2-8 in this young NFL season, I have to be accountable for my record. I've already endured the gentle ribbing from friends, including TheStreet's terrific biotech reporter Adam Feuerstein, and thankfully it's all good-natured. I'm actually taking more heat for the epic collapse my hometown Red Sox are making me endure. Thankfully, I have football to keep me occupied.

Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers)

The problem for NFL squares at home (and with my record, I have to believe I'm certainly a square bettor) is the abundance of sports picks sites out there, many of which charge exorbitant amounts for weekly picks from the professionals in Vegas. And yet, it's hard to get a handle on the track record of the person you're paying. You're getting a 2-8 record with me, but at least I'm honest about it (and free). That's also why I reach out to good Vegas sources who are held accountable, and who are transparent about their success.

Entering Week 3 of the NFL season with an abysmal record like mine, one might be prone to changing the strategy dramatically. But looking back at some of my picks, I don't see a fundamental flaw in the analysis. The Green Bay Packers game against the Carolina Panthers last week was a perfect example. With a pick of Packers -10, I looked to have an early winner with Green Bay up 14 with two minutes left in the game. Panthers rookie QB Cam Newton, though, put up another 400-yard performance passing and engineered a late-game touchdown drive for the backdoor cover. Sometimes, that's the way luck goes.

That's the danger for NFL bettors who sustain a losing streak. The inclination is to change up betting habits, perhaps wagering more now to make up for losses in the first two weeks. That's the most irresponsible way to handle a bankroll. It's boring and clichéd, but it's important to be more like the tortoise than the hare.

Week 3 presents a difficult task for handicappers due to an outsized number of injuries to key players, most notably star quarterbacks like Philadelphia Eagle Michael Vick, Dallas Cowboy Tony Romo and Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger. With no clarity on the extent of the injuries and uncertainty over who starts in each case, there are a handful of games I'm staying away from this week.

Another problem with wagering this year is the enormous amount of touchdowns that are being scored by NFL teams. There have been over 170 touchdowns scored through the first two weeks, far and away the most number of touchdowns in the first two weeks in history.

"With the touchdowns being scored at a higher rate, a touchdown win now is closer to the expectation than it ever has been before," 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.

"In other words, a 6.5-point line is not necessarily a big number," he continues. "It used to be anywhere from 1 to 3 points. You still see that in half the games, but whenever New Orleans or Green Bay or New England take the field, anything less than a touchdown you have to jump on."

Meanwhile, Bryan Leonard, a professional sports handicapper with Pregame.com, says that one of the big trends he's seeing if the public jumping on teams that are undefeated, perhaps overreacting to a small sample size.

"With teams who have looked good in the first two games, there's a lot of press now and teams like that get overrated," Leonard says. Leonard is part of the Tuesday Group, a collection of professional bettors in Vegas who get together to handicap the games each week. "There are a lot of teams that don't deserve that, and I'm looking to take advantage of that this week."

With that, let's get on to the picks for Week 3 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 New England Patriots against the Buffalo Bills. And as always, I encourage you to leave comments below with your favorite picks against the spread this week.

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (+9)

Two AFC East teams. Two 2-0 teams that can put up big point totals. Two defenses that I don't trust, but for very different reasons.

As we saw last week, the Patriots continue to pile on points, whether it's on the road or at home, whether the opponent is a weak division rival or one of the elite teams in the AFC. The Bills, on the other hand, came off a Week 1 win against a pitiful Chiefs team to power past the Raiders in a gripping Week 2 matchup that went down to the wire.

Both teams have question marks on defense, however. The Patriots allowed Chad Henne to look like Dan Marino in Week 1, and they did perform better against the Chargers. However, safety Patrick Chung injured his thumb and will be out this week, making a bad New England defense worse.

While it's hard to lay 8.5 points on the road, even if that team is the New England Patriots, there are plenty of concerns with Buffalo. They've beaten two teams that aren't the same caliber opponents as the Patriots. Plus, the Buffalo defense has shown it is ineffective against rushing attacks. With Tom Brady already a threat to throw the ball down field, it's hard not to see BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead piling up some running yards on the Bills.

According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton opened this game on Sept. 18 at Bills +8 and the line moved up to Bills +9 by late that evening. That number has steadily come down to Bills +8 again as the money poured in on the Patriots early and quickly. However, several other sports books in Vegas have the line at Bills +9.

PredictionMachine.com's Bessire says the public will pound the Patriots all year, but 9 points is a big line even for the Brady bunch.

"That is a lot to give for a road team that just lost its most dynamic threat in the passing game and is taking on a 2-0 team," Bessire says, referring to the loss of tight end Aaron Hernandez to injury. "The Patriots go with two tight ends more than any team, and while Belichick could pull out any scheme, Hernandez is a tremendous talent to be without."

New England should win, but Bessire doesn't expect a blowout. "This is a 7-point game. It's weird to think it's a moral victory for a 2-0 team to lose by 7 points at home," he adds.

Pregame.com's Leonard doesn't expect that oddsmakers will move lower than -8 for the Patriots. "Vegas doesn't want you to tease New England -7.5 down to -1.5. That's why this is sitting at -9 at the sharp books," he says.

Despite the big line, Leonard says he doesn't want any part of Buffalo because New England typically beats the Bills badly on their own home turf.

"The closest Buffalo has come to New England in the last five years at home is 7 points," Leonard says. "This is a big game in the division. I teased New England down -3, and I would take a look at the over. It's 53.5, which is a high number, but New England can't stop Buffalo offensively. And I don't think New England will slow down on offense."

The Pick: Bills +9 With a high over/under total, Vegas is saying they are ready for a shootout. And Vegas oddsmakers are aware that the Patriots are one team the public will put money on no matter how high the line goes. I don't love Buffalo this year, but I like them enough not to lose big. The Bills can throttle bad teams, like the Chiefs, and they can do enough to win close games against decent opponents, like the Raiders. They lose this game, but they should look like a good team putting up a fight.

Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings (+3.5)

Do you hop on the Lions bandwagon now, or do you think this becomes a must-win game for the woeful Vikings?

I tried to look at this game from all sides, and there's nothing I think we can learn about the Lions from a game like this. You have a Detroit team that, on 4th and goal in the fourth quarter with a healthy lead over the Chiefs, scored a touchdown rather than do the gentlemanly move and kick a field goal. This is a team with swagger that wanted to make a statement, and that statement is loud and clear. Aside from being a good barometer for the team's run defense, I won't know anything new about the Lions by Sunday night.

The Vikings, on the other hand, entered this season with a lot of promise. Heck, they looked fairly good in both games this season when they headed into the locker room for halftime with the lead. But in the end, the Vikings suffered hard-luck losses to better teams that came back to win, both at home and on the road.

So what's the culprit for the Vikings losses? Quarterback Donovan McNabb looks horrific as he doesn't appear able to throw the ball far enough and stretch the field. A lack of quality receives is probably to blame for that. Meanwhile, the running game has carried the team, with more than 150 rushing yards in both games so far. Surprisingly, the offense hasn't turned the ball over as much as I would have expected, and the Vikings have a positive turnover differential of +1 to show for that.

According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton opened this line on Sept. 18 at Vikings +3.5 and, with very little movement except for a few brief trips to +4, the spread has stayed constant. Most other sports books have also held constant with +3.5 as well, which means Vegas is probably seeing enough action on both sides. Unfortunately, it looks like we won't see a Vikings +3 any time before kickoff.

"Detroit is and should be favored to win this game, but there is enough chance of a close, 3-point victory in Minnesota that it's not one of our top few plays," says PredictionMachine.com's Bessire.

In pointing out the same late-game touchdown the Lions scored on Kansas City last week, Bessire it wasn't a message to the Chiefs but instead the rest of the league.

"They wanted to tell everyone that the hype was legit," Bessire says. "It's a vastly improved team and every part is headed in the right direction, while the opposite is true for Minnesota. Quarterback play has not improved from last season, and that's what the Vikings need to compete."

Pregame.com's Leonard, though, says that Vegas has the Lions favored on the road in order to take advantage of the overreaction from the public to the 2-0 start for Detroit.

"Detroit's better, sure, but last year they were 11-point underdogs in Minnesota. Are they 15 points better than they were last year? I'm not so sure," says Leonard. "Detroit has lost 13 straight games in Minnesota. They not only need to win, but cover 3.5 points. If Minnesota loses this week, they're down three games in the division and their season is over. This is a huge game for Minnesota, and Detroit is flying high and may be too overconfident."

The Pick: Lions -3.5 The Lions have put up more than 400 yards of total offense in back-to-back weeks. On defense, the Lions have forced 8 turnovers already. Minnesota's defense has allowed a lot of yards already this year to similarly explosive offensive teams. I don't like the hook on this spread, and I wish I could put this pick down as Detroit -3. That said, Detroit should want to prove it can hang with teams in its own division. I don't think they're too overconfident for this one and I think they manage to win by a touchdown.

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1.5)

I wrote last week that, in order to handle my normal duties as a stock market reporter and complete this column every week, I have to quickly crunch numbers and whittle 16 games down to five I want to pick for the week. Sometimes, come Thursday, I'm not thrilled with one of my game choices because I don't have much conviction with either choice. This happens to be one of them.

I feel like I've been beaten over the head for months into believing that both teams will regress from their good performances last season. Atlanta, though, is coming down from 13 wins while Tampa Bay won 10 games last season. The big difference is that Tampa was widely viewed as having an easier schedule last season, a potential sign that they should fall harder now that they're facing more difficult opponents this season.

Thus far, it's been tough for me to get a handle on either team. What drew me to pick this game out of the lineup on Monday was the spread. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton opened this game on Sept. 18 at Bucs -1 before that swung all the way to Falcons -1 less than a day later. Now, the line has swung all the way back to Bucs -2, after a brief stop at Bucs -1.5 for a few days. Other sports books have seen similar action, although several have come back down to Bucs -1.5.

Stopping for a moment to look at the point move, the only explanation is that, in the aftermath of the Falcons' Sunday night win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the public quickly pounced on the Bucs -1 line and drove it all the way in Atlanta's favor. Smart bettors must have seen a middling opportunity, which explains why the line has swung all the way back now to Bucs -2. Such small movements may appear like no big deal to the public, but in reality a 3-point line swing in Vegas is a pretty big deal. So which side of the bet is right?

When I tell PredictionMachine.com's Bessire that I feel like Tampa could expose Atlanta for the bad road team they are, he counters that he believes Atlanta will actually be the team that exposes Tampa Bay this year.

"Of the 10 wins they got last year, Tampa Bay won five games by 3 points or less," Bessire says. "Two of their losses were by exactly 3 points to these same Falcons. Everyone thinks about how terrible Matt Ryan is on the road, but he has played well in Tampa Bay in the past. Atlanta is the better team and they should be favored."

Pregame.com's Leonard, meanwhile, says he's down on both the Falcons and the Bucs.

"I'm more down on Tampa, though, because Atlanta has beaten Tampa Bay in five straight games," he says. "I like Josh Freeman, but when the team continually gets beaten so bad in the first half, he's not in a good position to always lead comebacks. When you play a team that is hungry and has a strong defense, you won't get those comeback games."

With this game, Leonard knows Vegas oddmakers won't be giving him Falcons +3, so he elected to tease Atlanta over the key number of 7. "Otherwise, this game has a line where I can't really play it," he adds.

The Pick: Falcons +1.5 It's a gut reaction. I guessed the line would be Falcons +2.5, so my eyes lit up when I saw that the Buccaneers were actually favored. As a fan, I like the Bucs and I like Josh Freeman, but I know that they have a tough time in games against Atlanta and other division opponents. Atlanta got lucky in the game against Philadelphia Sunday night, and the Falcons need to assert themselves this week by beating a division opponent if they have hopes of returning to the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns (-2.5)

I loved Cleveland last week, but as long-time readers know, the Brownies have often broken my wagering heart. Instead, I chose not to include their game against the Indianapolis Colts in my column last week. Given that they beat the spread when I don't pick them, the Browns will surely foul up my pick this week.

Thankfully, though, I'm not quite sure I want to go with Cleveland, even though they're playing at home as the favorite. The Browns looked completely outmatched in Week 1 against division rivals the Bengals. And to be honest, I was not impressed at all with the team's performance last week against the hapless Colts. Indianapolis, without Manning, really shouldn't be putting up 19 points against any team. My confidence in Cleveland, once a bandwagon pick for the playoffs before the season started, is shattered.

Bettors are also very much aware of Miami's backwards record on the road versus at home. The Dolphins won only one home game last season, and yet they managed to beat teams like the Packers, Jets and Raiders on the road. The Dolphins are off to the same start this year, too, losing their first two home games to the Patriots and Texans by a total of 24 points. So now that those losses at home are out of the way, the Dolphins should start winning on the road, right?

According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton opened this game on Sept. 18 at Browns -3. That line has moved off that key number of 3 to Browns -2.5 at the Hilton, although some other Vegas books have the line at -3 still. One book has moved the line as low as -2.

What is interesting is the way the amount to wager has changed. The Hilton had the Browns -3 at -110, meaning you bet $110 to win $100. Sharp bettors must have been all over Miami, because within an hour it moved to Browns -3 at +100, meaning you bet $100 to win as much. At the same time, wagers on Dolphins +3 moved to -120, meaning you had to pony up more money just to win $100. As the line has changed to Browns -2.5, the wager has moved back to -110. It seems Vegas is still trying to figure out an appropriate spot for this game.

It's no surprise to find that Bessire's Prediction Machine has this matchup as the model's closest game of the week.

"It could easily go either way, making the 2.5-point line appropriate," Bessire says. "With defenses better than the offenses they're facing, which isn't saying much, flipping a coin is just as accurate. These are two very inconsistent teams that play a sloppier brand of football. I'd probably stay away, but the Dolphins have a good enough chance to win straight up so they would at least cover that line."

Pregame.com's Leonard says that if he can't get Miami +3, he plans to tease Miami up over 8.5 points.

"Miami has played better on the road and they're in a do-or-die situation," Leonard says, noting that the other three AFC East teams are 2-0. "Cleveland, on the other hand, is coming off a win last week and they're in a division where everyone is a mediocre 1-1. This game is not as important for Cleveland to win this game as it is for Miami. I would love a -3 to get value in Miami, but I'll be on a teaser if the line doesn't get there."

The Pick: Dolphins -2.5 Everyone made a big deal about Reggie Bush coming to Florida, but it turns out Daniel Thomas has been the more effective running back, gaining 107 yards on the ground this season to Bush's paltry total of 56. Thomas could be a problem for the Browns, who gave up 139 rushing yards to Cincinnati in Week 1 and 109 rushing yards to a hampered Colts offense.

Houston Texans at New Orleans Saints (-4)

This could very well be the game of the week, considering how exciting it will be to watch two high-powered offenses capable of big scoring plays. Bessire calls this "the quintessential NFL game right now."

He says "right now" because of the massive amount of touchdowns scored this season, as I mentioned on the first page of this column. With the Texans facing the Saints, a 6.5-point line really seems more like a field goal. That's why a line of only 4 points for this game seems like it's a good opportunity for bettors to pounce.

"A 4-point line doesn't mean much when you have two great offenses," Bessire says. "Think about the Week 1 game between the Packers and Saints. New Orleans had a chance that entire game, and yet the Saints still lost by more than a touchdown. Now, when the Saints are rightfully the favorites, their style of play warrants a 'big number.'"

If that theory is true, that makes a 4-point line more like a 1-point line between Houston and New Orleans. That means, if you're going to play this game, you're essentially picking who you think will win the game outright. It's never a good idea to take an underdog team that you only hope will keep a game close, and that's certainly true in this case.

According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton opened with New Orleans as 3.5-point favorites late Sunday, and the line almost immediately went up to 4 points; for a very brief time, New Orleans was favored by 4.5 points at the Hilton, although the Super Book (and virtually every other Vegas book) has the Saints laying 4 points now.

Bessire says he expects a game where both teams put up at least 20 points, but that the Saints, with home field and an advantage in the passing game, win by about a touchdown.

"New Orleans' offense ranks as the third-best in the league according our numbers, third in passing efficiency and seventh in rushing efficiency," he says. "The Texans' offense is seventh overall, yet fifth in both passing and rushing efficiency. That being said, a shootout that blows by the total line of 53 points is not exactly what we are looking for."

Funnily enough, Pregame.com's Leonard says he's already played the over on the game simply because he expects a shootout between two very good quarterbacks.

"Houston has played two weak offensive teams to start the season, so their numbers against Indy and Miami look impressive," he says. "But New Orleans can put some points on the board. The line is where it should be, so if I have to lean, I'm leaning on the home favorite."

The Pick: Saints -4 I had originally picked the Texans in an upset, but Leonard's point about how the Texans have looked good against bad teams like the Colts and the Dolphins can't be ignored. The Saints, on the other hand, have played against two decent defensive teams in the Packers and the Bears, winning one game in which they were favored handily and coming very close to winning the other as underdogs. New Orleans takes care of business at home.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Robert Holmes.

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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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