Against the Spread: 2011 NFL Picks: Week 8

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- If only Tim Tebow would hold a prayer circle for my NFL picks against the spread, I might be able to mount a comeback like the one the Denver Broncos did last weekend.

Through seven weeks, my record against the spread is 13-20 with two ties. My victories last week were on the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets. My losses were on the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions. The Colts pick, at +14, is the worst pick in retrospect, although I still find it hard to argue with the pick.

Tim Tebow, QB of the Denver Broncos

"You could've had the Colts on a 55-point teaser and you still would've lost," jokes 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.

That one game highlights all the problems I've had with logical thinking during this NFL season. The lockout cut down training camp to only a handful of days, so it was expected offensive units wouldn't gel yet. Instead, we have some of the most prolific offenses we've ever seen, with a record number of points and touchdowns scored. We've had several rookie quarterbacks start from day one, like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, who were supposed to fail miserably. That definitely hasn't happened. We have teams coming off of bye weeks that look discombobulated, not rested and well-prepared.

If you feel the same way, it's comforting to know we're not alone.

"Even the guys who bet for a living are having a hard time," Leonard says. "Think about it now. New Orleans scores 62 points on a Monday night and now heads to St. Louis to play a winless team. Normally, every wiseguy and his brother would be on the Rams in that game. I have yet to find a guy who will jump in front of it. The linesmakers can't put the lines high enough. It's a one-way train and everyone is getting run over week after week."

Logic is failing, but it really means that gamblers should consider turning away from situational views and instead look at the matchups more closely, some say.

"Logic is one thing. If we're talking about trick or treats for Halloween this weekend, people have been tricked into searching for the impact of the lockout and bye weeks rather than looking at the matchups," 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.

"I don't think the lockout or these rules have had that great of an impact," Bessire says. In noting the game where the St. Louis Rams came off a bye week and still got obliterated by the Green Bay Packers, Bessire asserts that "it doesn't matter if they had one week, two weeks, or 10 weeks -- they shouldn't have been expected to keep it within two scores. It comes down to the matchups."

With that, let's get on to the picks for Week 8 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 Pregame.com's 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 Dallas Cowboys travel to play the Philadelphia Eagles. And as always, I encourage you to leave comments below with your favorite picks against the spread this week. I'm looking for more thoughts this week, as I continue to struggle to find value.

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (-3.5)

It's interesting to view both franchises and their current situations in a narrative that borrows the other team's name. The Eagles, touted as the new Dream Team of the NFL, is more like a down-and-out cowboy wandering aimlessly in the NFC East wasteland. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are soaring like an eagle after a good performance against the Patriots and a blowout win over the Rams.

Before the season began, the Eagles were considered a virtual lock for the playoffs; They'll be lucky if they can land a wild card spot in the rough-and-tumble NFC. The Cowboys, given all the ways they looked terrible in the first few weeks, now resemble championship teams we've seen before. Last week, I noted Bessire's comment on how this year's Cowboys remind him an awful lot of last year's Packers: A tough schedule to start the season, bad injuries, a return to health and a run through the playoffs.

While the focus typically falls on Tony Romo and his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory late in games, the real driving force behind the Cowboys has been their stellar play on defense. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys have a defense that ranks third in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) behind only the Jets and Ravens. The offense, ranked 11th by DVOA, has instead been the issue for Dallas. That said, the Cowboys offense was ranked 15th last week in offensive DVOA, so they are improving. One of the great performances last week was by DeMarco Murray, who ran all over the Rams for more than 200 yards.

On the hand, the Eagles moved up a spot in overall DVOA last week despite having the week off. That said, the Eagles are smack dab in the middle of the NFL, ranked at 16th. Philly's offense ranks about the same as the Cowboys, but the team's defense has instead been the weak spot. The Eagles defense is 21st in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings and it's no wonder why. The Eagles, through six games, give up an average of 341 total yards, with more than 120 of those yards given up to opposing running backs.

And yet, despite the cases to be made for the Cowboys and against the Eagles, Vegas favors Philadelphia. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted this game on Oct. 23 with Philadelphia as 3.5-point favorites. That line hasn't budged since at all, but the payoffs have. For a brief time on Oct. 24, bettors would have gotten even money on the Eagles -3.5, rather than -110, while those who took Dallas +3.5 would have to shell out $120 to win $100. Both sides have since returned to equilibrium at -110.

Bessire has one explanation for why the Eagles might be favored by so many points this week: Andy Reid is 12-0 as the Eagles' head coach when coming off of a bye week. "That seems to be playing into the line. I hope it is something we can exploit," Prediction Machine's Bessire says. "I love the fact that they're underdogs, and I love the extra hook."

Ultimately, Bessire says, it is Dallas' balance on offense and defense that should keep the Cowboys in and most likely win them this game. "The Cowboys can do everything pretty well, while the Eagles are very good in some facets of the game, yet struggle in others," he adds. He notes that the Eagles rank near the bottom in run defense by his own numbers, for example.

"It all comes down to the hook," Pregame's Leonard says of the line being 3.5 points and not 3 points. "If it's 3.5, you have to look at Dallas. It's the situation. Dallas is getting healthier. They've played a better, consistent game. They're in every game they play. Philadelphia, on the other hand, they don't play a complete game. They haven't all season long. You're probably getting the right side as long as it's 3.5 and not 3."

The Pick: Cowboys +3.5. The Cowboys, even with their dumbfounding losses, are playing the way a playoff team should. They win or lose very close games and they blowout bad opponents, like the Rams. I don't know that I can entirely back the notion that the Cowboys win this game outright, though it's not difficult to picture that scenario. It's the hook on the line that makes it so appetizing.

Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers (-3.5)

Two rookie quarterbacks, two bad secondary units on defense, two new head coaches, two teams at the bottom of their respective divisions with too much competition at the top. Yes, the Vikings and the Panthers are essentially mirror images of each other.

Given all of the similarities, though, there are glaring differences when comparing the two teams that extend beyond their win/loss records. The Panthers have a deep threat in wide receiver Steve Smith that the Vikings lack, while Minnesota has arguably the best running back in the NFL in Adrian Peterson while the running back pair in Carolina can't seem to rush for touchdowns. Cam Newton in on pace to accumulate 4,600 yards passing and could end up with more rushing touchdowns than the entire AFC combined, while Christian Ponder barely broke through 200 passing yards in Week 7.

The other major difference -- the one that bettors should be most interested in -- is how the Vikings are a balanced team while the Panthers are decidedly unbalanced. Sure, the Vikings aren't that great overall, but they rank 16th in offense DVOA and 19th in defense DVOA. The Panthers, on the other hand, are a top 5 offense by DVOA measures, but are at the bottom of the barrel in terms of defense ranking at 29th. The question becomes, can the Vikings defense slow down the Panthers offense and score enough points themselves to keep the game close?

Oddsmakers gave bettors a pretty good middling opportunity, it seems. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted this game on Oct. 23 at Panthers -4.5. By the end of the day, that line slowly drifted down in half-point increments to Panthers -3. Since Oct. 24, that line has bounced back and forth between -3.5 and -3. Obviously, getting the hook is better for those who want to take the road dog. The issue, though, is that Carolina -3.5 is even money, while Minnesota +3.5 will cost you $120 to win $100, eliminating the attractiveness of that extra half-point on the line.

"I'm not to the point where I think Ponder is legit, but this Minnesota offense now looks a lot more balanced and can hang with Carolina in a likely shootout," Prediction Machine's Bessire says. "Carolina has been playing a lot of weaker defenses and have been covering in a lot of shootouts up until this point. This is a slightly better defense in Minnesota that the Panthers will be playing."

"Carolina has gotten to be a public team and the win last week to cover the number reinforces the idea that they're the better team," says Pregame's Leonard. "But looking at the personnel, Minnesota is the right choice. Minnesota can run on Carolina and they'll have a lot of success that way. To get more than a field goal, if I had to play it, it'd be Minnesota. If you can get that hook, it's still the right side."

The Pick: Vikings +3.5. Yes, Cam will likely throw for a ton of yards against the woeful Vikings defense. But the Panthers may not have an answer for Adrian Peterson, who has looked remarkably better as of late. Even if the Panthers stuff the line on Peterson, Carolina's pass rush isn't good enough to slow Ponder, even if he is a young rookie starting only his second game. Like Dallas, I'm not sure the Vikings can win on the road this week, but they should keep it close. The half-point hook only makes the pick that much more attractive.

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers (+3)

It breaks my heart to play against my beloved Tom Brady and New England Patriots for a third-straight time, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Look, I'll be the first to admit this as a Patriots fan: The defense stinks. It really does. New England's defense did improve in the last two games against the Jets and Cowboys, but it says a lot about the 5-1 Patriots that they lead the AFC East division with a defense ranked 28th in DVOA. The Patriots' biggest problem is that they have an awful pass defense, which doesn't bode well with the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger up next.

So sure, you may have known all along that the Patriots stink on defense. But raise your hand if you didn't think the Steelers were left for dead after nearly blowing that one Sunday night game against the Colts only to lose the following week against the Texans, leaving Pittsburgh with a 2-2 record. Of course, Pittsburgh has feasted recently on a crop of terrible teams, from the Jaguars to the Cardinals to the Titans. Now the big bad Patriots are coming to town.

The public really loves the Patriots; Pittsburgh's lackluster performance against the Jaguars last weekend only exacerbated that adoration. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted the Patriots as -1.5 road favorites, meaning Vegas thinks the Patriots are 4.5 points better than the Steelers on a neutral field. Fair enough. However, by Oct. 24 the line moved higher. New England is now giving 3 points in Pittsburgh. According to RJ Bell of Pregame.com, the Steelers haven't been more than 3-point underdogs at home in a decade.

Given how dominant both teams have been in the AFC conference, it feels like the Patriots have faced (and beaten) the Steelers several times in the last five years, right? That would justify the +3 line on the Steelers. But Prediction Machine's Bessire did a little digging, and the results are quite surprising. The Steelers and Patriots have faced each other only two other times since 2008, and Tom Brady was injured for one of those contests. The Patriots did wallop the Steelers last year by a score of 39-26 in Pittsburgh, so the urge to take the Pats and lay the points is understandable, even if it is the wrong bet.

"The recipe for this upset is pretty simple. Pittsburgh has a very good passing game (ranked seventh in the NFL) and can defend the pass (ranked fourth against the pass)," Bessire says. "New England has the league's second-best passing game (to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers), yet just its 28th ranked pass defense. You won't see something fluky like with what happened in Buffalo for the Patriots. Pittsburgh doesn't need four interceptions to keep this game close."

The professionals don't necessarily agree. "Everyone who I've talked to likes New England," Pregame's Leonard says. "New England's game planning has always had success going against the Steelers. Pittsburgh is getting a little healthier but they can't protect the quarterback. You have to put up a lot of points to compete with New England. Pittsburgh hasn't had a quality win yet. I actually like New England is this game."

The Pick: Steelers +3. I love the Patriots. I love the offense. I loathe the defense. Given my hometown rooting interest in New England, I pray the Steelers are on the losing end of this game, but I'm wishing for a 24-23 game. The Patriots had a week off to rest, but I think that the Dallas Cowboys have shown teams a blueprint for how to keep the Patriots from scoring more than 20 points. The Steelers would be stupid not to follow that same game plan.

Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens (-12.5)

While a cardinal may exemplify a beautiful flying creature, the truth is that both of these teams look as dark, ugly and ungraceful as a raven.

The case can be made that the Arizona Cardinals are the worst team in football, which comes as such a surprise given some of the talent on the team, notably wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Through seven weeks of the NFL season, though, the Cardinals are ranked 30th in overall team DVOA, denied the lowest spot on the totem pole by the Colts and Rams. The Cardinals are perhaps the most disappointing, though, because of how much hope the arrival of Kevin Kolb brought to the team. Instead, the team's offense is ranked 28th in DVOA, worse than even the Peyton Manning-less Colts. Oof.

The Ravens, on the other hand, are so thoroughly disgusting because of the team's wild inconsistency. A big win against Pittsburgh was followed by an embarrassing loss to the Titans. A blowout of the Rams was succeeded by an appalling performance in a win over the Jets. The memory of a solid win over the Texans is marred by an unexplainable loss to the lowly Jaguars. If someone could explain this team to me, I'd appreciate it, because the only explanation I have is that the Baltimore offense is so bad that the defense needs to be relied on to do anything. That should be a positive, then, for the Ravens as they face the Cards.

According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted the Ravens as 13-point favorites on Oct. 23 and now stands at -12.5 after little movement. The fact that there has been no movement is interesting considering Baltimore's atrocious performance in their loss Monday night to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"Given that the home team is taking on one of the worst teams in the NFL, I wish there had been more of an overreaction to how bad Baltimore looked," Bessire says of the Monday night game against Jacksonville. "The Ravens are only favored by 13 points when we expect them to win by 16 points, on average. Whether our numbers fully account for it or not, Baltimore wants to make a statement and win big."

As Pregame.com's Leonard mentioned before, linesmakers can't seem to raise the lines high enough to keep the public on one side and the wiseguys on the other side. This game is a pretty clear example of that, he says.

"I did bet this game, but I took Baltimore in the first half -7. As emotional as they are, they'll come out and put a shock on the Cardinals in the first half," he says. "My only concern is that Baltimore's offense has really struggled, and not just on Monday night. Unless you get a defensive touchdown, it's hard to imagine the Ravens scoring a ton of points. That makes it tough to lay the points on this game. That said, if I did play it, I'd play the Baltimore side."

The Pick: Ravens -12.5. The Ravens are inconsistent, and yet I'm banking on the team being consistently inconsistent, if that makes sense. It's this simple: Baltimore needs to throttle one of the worst teams in the NFL who, by the way, is flying from the West Coast to play a game at 1 p.m. ET. To be honest, I'm surprised this line isn't 14 points or higher. You can thank Jacksonville for helping to depress this line some. Too bad it's not a little lower.

Washington Redskins at Buffalo Bills (-6)

Blame Canada.

I'm not lifting that line from South Park as a cute way to note this game will be played in Toronto, not Buffalo. I actually believe an argument should be made that this line is too high favoring a home team that isn't really playing at home. That's not to say the Canadian fans won't show up to this game. But will the Canucks be fired up about the 4-2 start for the Bills?

"I don't think they've covered since they've started playing in Toronto," Pregame's Leonard says of the Bills and their trips across the border. "I have a friend in Toronto and he says that half of the tickets are sold to fans of the other team. The people from Buffalo are not traveling to Toronto to go to the games. So it's basically Canadians who aren't a boisterous crowd."

That said, who can believe in the Redskins now after coach Mike Shanahan has attempted to suck all the life and excitement out of the Washington locker room? If the injuries to some of the team's key starters wasn't enough, and if the two straight losses weren't enough, the mismanagement of the quarterback and running back position should be more than enough. Rex Grossman isn't a great quarterback, that much is understood. But even after the woeful performance against Philadelphia, does it send the right message to your team that you can still compete in the NFC East and win?

This is another game where the line has held fairly steady. According to Vegas Insider, the Las Vegas Hilton posted the Bills, coming off a bye week, as 5-point favorites in Toronto. A day later, the line moved to -6, which it still stands today.

Leonard says that Washington probably can't compete with Buffalo in scoring, so the Bills won't have to throw the ball to win this game. "Buffalo will be very happy with a grind-them-out type of game," he says. "When you have that type of game and you're not really playing on your home field, laying 6 points is a lot. If I had to choose a side it'd be Washington, but I think the under is really the play here."

"Buffalo needs to win by a touchdown in order to cover that number, and our model doesn't see the Bills as a team that should be able to consistently win by more than a touchdown," Bessire. "I understand the concern of so many offensive players for the Redskins, with Tim Hightower, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley being down. But their replacements might actually be upgrades for all three of those players."

But perhaps the most important player replacement that could swing the game is John Beck starting over Rex Grossman as Washington's quarterback. "Buffalo has made its mark by forcing interceptions and causing turnovers," Bessire says. "That screams 'Rex Grossman, four interceptions.' It's a small sample size, but Beck has shown not to make the same type of mistakes over his career."

The Pick: Redskins +6.

Although I've given my five picks against the spread for Week 8, 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.

As I've written in the two previous weeks, I've had a hard time grappling with the spreads the last few weeks. This week, for instance, it was hard to pick out the five games I felt most confident about because I simply don't feel great about anything (aside from perhaps Dallas +3.5). The first few games listed below are ones I had actually prepared to write about on Monday but changed my mind on in the interim.

The disturbing trend? I love all of the road teams. That's a recipe for disaster. Again, please leave your comments below with your picks this week and why you like them. Have a great weekend!

Home team in caps

  • Chargers -3.5 over CHIEFS
  • Saints -13.5 over RAMS
  • Colts +9 over TITANS
  • Jaguars +9.5 over TEXANS
  • Lions -3 over BRONCOS
  • Dolphins +10 over GIANTS
  • Browns +9 over 49ERS
  • Bengals -3 over SEAHAWKS

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston.

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