Against the Spread: 2011 NFL Picks: Week 7

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- "I'm not going to lie: Week 6 looks like the toughest week for picking NFL games against the spread."

That's how I began last week's picks column, a week in which my picks against the spread went 1-3 with one tie. It's unfortunate that the same can be said about Week 7, as it's really tough for bettors to find value in the spreads Vegas oddsmakers have posted.

Carson Palmer, QB of the Oakland Raiders

Through six weeks, my record against the spread is 11-17 with two ties. My lone victory last week was on the Dallas Cowboys +7 and I pushed on my pick of the Buffalo Bills +3. My losses were on the St. Louis Rams, Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers. The Rams pick, at +14, was particularly painful as it seemed like they were in Green Bay territory constantly, and yet only came away with 3 points in 60 minutes.

This week, a similarly tough slate of matchups has given bettors some trouble. I guessed the lines earlier this week and found that they all nearly matched Vegas' lines. That's not a good sign for how this week will go, especially since now is the time of the season where I can usually get into a groove.

That problem is compounded by a bevy of roster moves, particularly four new quarterbacks set to start this week. As you've probably heard by now, the Raiders mortgaged the farm to land Carson Palmer, who hasn't played a game in nearly a year. John Beck will step in for Rex Grossman in Washington, rookie Christian Ponder takes over for Donovan McNabb in Minnesota, and Tim Tebow takes over the reins from Kyle Orton in Denver.

"It is an interesting week because of all the changes," 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 most of those situations, the public will overvalue those changes," Bessire adds. "In none of those specific quarterback changes is the backup that much different from the starter in terms of the overall impact of the team's chances of winning and the line itself. In all honesty, there isn't that much of a gap. Not one of these changes is like going from Peyton Manning to Curtis Painter."

"How do you grade the quarterback changes? Is it a positive or a negative, and not for this week but the whole season?" asks Bryan Leonard, a professional sports handicapper with Pregame.com who is also part of the Tuesday Group, a collection of professional bettors in Las Vegas who get together to handicap the games each week.

"I haven't seen too much of a difference in the lines yet," Leonard says. "We had the same situation in college football last week. Is it really a positive, or is it a change of pace?"

With that, let's get on to the picks for Week 7 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 have also collected commentary from Leonard, whose 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.

Read on for the first game pick, where the Kansas City Chiefs travel to play the Oakland Raiders. And as always, I encourage you to leave comments below with your favorite picks against the spread this week. I am always looking for more thoughts on this week's games.

Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders (-5.5)

Let's start this week's picks with a team that has changed up at the quarterback position. All week, we've heard about the injury to Raiders QB Jason Campbell and how he'd heal from his broken collarbone and return in six weeks. That's too long for Oakland to live with Kyle Boller, as the team went out and threw down two high draft picks to land Palmer. That scares me because, as far as we can tell, Palmer was sitting at home, eating Ben & Jerry's Schweddy Balls on the couch last week.

The public, though, is amped about seeing Palmer back in action. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted Oakland as 6-point favorites on Oct. 16, although the injury to Jason Campbell dropped the line as low as Raiders -3. The addition of Carson Palmer has slowly moved the line higher, with the Raiders now 5.5-point favorites at home.

PredictionMachine.com's Bessire argues that, while the improving Chiefs look like an enticing underdog pick going up against a quarterback who hasn't played in a year, the strengths of both teams cancel each other out. He expects the Raiders to win this game handily at home.

"The Chiefs' strengths -- running and stopping the run -- matchup pretty well with the Raiders," Bessire says. "However, their weaknesses -- moving the ball effectively through the air and defending the pass -- are glaring. In the NFL, even in this matchup, road teams that cannot pass or defend the pass will have a hard time keeping things close."

Pregame.com's Leonard, though, is leaning towards Kansas City. "If this was 6 points, I would be all over Kansas City," he says. "I wouldn't be on Oakland unless it was 3 points. "

The Pick: Raiders -5.5. Without the injury to Jason Campbell, I would probably be on the Raiders anyways. According to Football Outsiders' proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system, Oakland is ranked 9th overall while Kansas City is a lowly 27 out of 32. The Chiefs' offense won't be able to hang with the Raiders, which should allow Carson Palmer to ease back into NFL life.

San Diego Chargers at New York Jets (+2)

When a line on an NFL game moves more than 3 points and it's not due to injury or some easily explainable reason, it deserves more scrutiny from bettors.

According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted a line of Jets -2.5 on Oct. 16. After the Jets' uninspired performance on Monday Night Football, the line moved to Jets -1.5 and then to a pick 'em. Slowly, the line has moved in San Diego's favor, from Chargers -1 to -1.5 to now -2. Most Vegas books have San Diego favored by 2 points, although some have moved that down to -1.5.

From what I can tell, the shifting line from Jets as favorites to Jets as underdogs has a lot to do with New York's performance before a televised audience Monday night. Once again, the Jets struggled on offense. While the team scored 24 points on the Dolphins, New York had less than 300 yards of total offense. The defense held up and forced three turnovers, one of which was an interception for a touchdown. Clearly, Vegas was not impressed with New York.

There are a lot of situational things for bettors to consider for this game. San Diego has to fly from west to east to play at 1 p.m. ET, which hasn't gone well historically for teams that play in the Pacific time zone. That may not make a difference, though, as San Diego has Week 6 off to rest. The Jets are coming off a Monday night game, so they have a short week to prepare for the rested Chargers. That said, they're playing in a second straight week in New Jersey, so that short week doesn't impact them as much. Instead, bettors are smart to look at the differences both teams have had in strength of schedule.

"Before the year, we projected that San Diego would be favored in 14 games. The other two were at New England and at the New York Jets," Bessire says. "San Diego has only played one team with a winning record, New England, against which the Chargers lost 35-21. Their four other opponents are a combined 4-17, yet San Diego has only won their games by an average of 6.25 points-per-game."

On the other hand, Bessire notes, the Jets are 3-3 on the season but have played one of the five toughest schedules in the NFL, suffering losses to Oakland, Baltimore and New England, all on the road. If an easy schedule has helped inflate the Chargers' overall record, then the tough start to the season has punished the Jets so far. "This week, we expect the Chargers to lose a close game to the Jets," Bessire adds.

"I don't have a play at this moment," says Pregame.com's Leonard. "If it were a pick 'em, I'd be on San Diego. I wasn't impressed with the Jets on Monday night. The Jets only had 100 yards of offense by halftime. That was more about Miami not playing well than the Jets figuring it all out. This is the time of year San Diego puts it all together. But right now, I don't really want to lay points on the road."

The Pick: Jets +2. As 2-point underdogs, Vegas is telling me that the Chargers would be 5-point favorites on a neutral field. I'm just not convinced yet of the Chargers' ability. They certainly have the talent, but I haven't seen them play a complete game and win convincingly. They're 4-1, but I think that's more luck than ability. I like the Jets in a mild upset in which they expose the Chargers as a mediocre team.

Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions (-3.5)

If you want a good look at how Vegas prepares for overreactions from the public, look no further than this game.

According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted the Lions as 6-point favorites over the Falcons on Oct. 16. The loss to the San Francisco 49ers and the injury to running back Jahvid Best has pushed the line down to Lions -3.5 at even money. On the other side, the struggling Atlanta Falcons hosted the upstart Carolina Panthers and summarily crushed them, winning by two touchdowns.

Despite the line movement, it's hard to figure out exactly where the value lies. If you were to take the Falcons +3.5, you'd have to pony up $120 to win $100. Even as that line has come down, oddsmakers are pushing to get money in on Detroit.

PredictionMachine.com's Bessire says the line coming down is due to the Lions' failure to cover and win against San Francisco, which may have turned public sentiment after many fans jumped on the Lions bandwagon early.

So, throwing aside the shift in public sentiment, which team is actually better? According to Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, Atlanta (12) ranks a tad higher than Detroit (14) does overall. The same is true in the offensive category, with Atlanta at 12 and Detroit at 16. However, the Lions have a higher ranked defense according to DVOA at 4, compared with 10 for Atlanta. In other words, Atlanta is a better team overall and has a better offense, according to DVOA, but Detroit has a much better defense. In fact, the Lions have one of the best defensive units in the league.

"The numbers still like Detroit to dominate against the pass to win and cover," Bessire says of his own model's output. "Atlanta struggles on the road and in general without an ability to consistently win the turnover battle. The Lions are going to face a much easier defense to exploit. Atlanta has the propensity to give up big plays. The Lions have a good opportunity to win by a touchdown or more."

Pregame.com's Leonard says he isn't buying into Atlanta yet, noting that any bet on the Lions is probably more a bet against the Falcons. The upward movement in the line, though, causes him to pause.

"A lot of that movement is because of the idea of the end of a winning streak," Leonard says. "When teams are on long winning streaks and they lose their first game, you don't want to bet on them the next game. It's a situation where this works in all sports over the year. The team gets it in their mind that they're not invincible. I happen to think Detroit is the better team, so if I can get -3 at -110, I'd look at it."

The Pick: Lions -3.5. I'd love this game more as -3, but I'll take the hook and hope for the best. That Lions homefield advantage is one of the best in the NFL, which could affect the Falcons, who I believe are one of the worst road teams in football. Again, I don't love this pick, but given the line move down from -6, there's some value.

St. Louis Rams at Dallas Cowboys (-13)

What a difference a quarterback injury can make. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton had Dallas as 9.5-point favorites on Oct. 16, with the line jumping as high as 13.5 points on word Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was injured with a high ankle sprain. Bradford will reportedly try to play on Sunday, which is a good thing; Off the top of my head, I can't name the St. Louis backup quarterback.

On the other hand, can we really trust the Cowboys to put a team away? This is the same Dallas team that gave away games to the Jets, Lions and Patriots. And I still can't explain how the Cowboys beat the 49ers and the Redskins. It's hard to put trust in a team like this covering a two-touchdown spread.

Not everyone is as down on the Cowboys as I am. PredictionMachine.com's Bessire says the Cowboys are starting to remind him of last year's Packers: A team that has dealt with a difficult schedule and injuries early in the season that could put it together and make a deep playoff run.

"Dallas should cover at home over a still beat-up Rams team," Bessire says. "I want to temper this a little bit, but I'm getting very excited about this Dallas team and what it's capable of doing. It really reminds me of last year's Packers. There is a lot of talent on that team, and this should be a get-right game for the Cowboys to put everything together. If they don't cover here, though, that would concern me. The talent is so great that they need to learn how to win in a blowout."

Pregame.com's Leonard says the line was bid up because Bradford wasn't supposed to play due to injury, but he has a different problem betting on Dallas right now.

"They always have games where they finish within 4 points," Leonard says. "For Dallas, it always comes down to the last series of the game, and they need two touchdowns to cover this spread. Dallas may be a little underrated, but I don't see much value there. I just don't have much of an opinion on this one."

The Pick: Cowboys -13. I'm not going to lie, I hate this pick. That said, my numbers have the Cowboys winning by a whopping 26 points, and that's impossible to ignore. Thankfully, DVOA is on my side: Dallas ranks 15th overall, while the Rams are the worst team as measured by DVOA. Dallas could do what Green Bay did last week, and that is stake out an early lead and let their stellar defense play hard for a possible shutout.

Indianapolis Colts at New Orleans Saints (-14)

Another two-touchdown spread?

At some point, you have to feel bad for the Colts, as they're not getting any credit (or bets) from the public. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted a line of New Orleans -14 on Oct. 16 and that line has stayed fairly constant, only briefly falling to Saints -13.

The Saints are a very public team, and it's hard to argue that they'll be motivated to make a statement this week. New Orleans wrapped up a three-game road trip with a loss against division rival Tampa Bay last week. As you've probably seen, coach Sean Payton was injured when a player fell into his leg on the sideline. Back at home for the first time in nearly a month, I have to believe the Saints will be playing hard.

But will they be able to play well enough against a rested Colts team? The Colts are not good, ranking 29th in overall DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. New Orleans is ranked significantly higher at 13. The problem for the Saints, though, is how bad their defense is. While New Orleans' offense is ranked 4th overall, the defense is ranked a miserable 24th. That may not be enough to stop the Colts, even if it is Curtis Painter and not Peyton Manning under center.

"We have a slight lean towards Indianapolis in this game in the Colts' ability to keep it within two touchdowns on Sunday night," PredictionMachine.com's Bessire says. "The line is just too big. The Colts can move the ball. So while the Saints will put up a lot of points, the Colts should be able to keep it around two touchdowns. I like to stay away from these lines in general, but we're saying the Colts are closer to a 10-point underdog than 14 points."

"Vegas is saying the Saints will put up 31 or 32 points against Indy, and I can see that happening," says Pregame.com's Leonard. "Even with Indy's improving offense, I'm not sure they have the ability to put up enough points. But I can see the Saints getting a decent-sized lead and then their defense allows some points, as they've not been decent at all. I actually kind of like the over in this game."

The Pick: Colts +14. This will be a high scoring game, but I expect the Colts to show a little life. They'll lose, but they shouldn't lose by more than two touchdowns.

Although I've given my five picks against the spread for Week 7, I thought I'd also add in my selections for the other games this week. I won't include these in my overall record, but instead I'm just merely adding them as a bonus. Again, please leave your comments below with your picks this week and why. Have a great weekend.

  • Ravens -7.5 over JAGUARS
  • Packers -9 over VIKINGS
  • Steelers -3.5 over CARDINALS
  • Broncos +1 over DOLPHINS
  • BUCCANEERS +1 over Bears
  • Redskins +2.5 over PANTHERS
  • BROWNS -3 over Seahawks
  • TITANS -7.5 over Texans

PredictionMachine's Bessire says his model has the most confidence on the Steelers/Cardinals game, a rematch of the 2009 Super Bowl that Pittsburgh won 27-23. "You could make a strong case that Arizona is the worst team in the NFL," Bessire says, tipping his hand in terms of the model's preferred pick. "They're coming off four straight losses, and yet they've played the 28th toughest schedule in the league."

On the other hand, Pregame.com's Leonard - a professional handicapper - hasn't placed a single bet at all this week, and he's not sure that will change by Sunday.

"I just don't like the card," he says. "I'm looking for line moves over key numbers or under key numbers, but I don't see anything in a single game. I'm looking down the list looking for a team that will be motivated this week. I just don't see it."

-- 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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