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Late Season NFL Handicapping

   by Bryan Leonard - 12/21/2007

Coaching in pro football is not easy, and frankly, there are far more bad/mediocre coaches than very good ones. Just ask Detroit Lion fans the last seven years. This is the time of the season when coaches can be a huge factor in whether a team is motivated or not. Many NFL teams are already out of it and there are fans more focused on who they will take in the NFL draft than the remainder of the 2007 schedule.

It's not always easy for teams this late in the season to get focused or give 100%, unless they are fighting for a playoff berth. However, some coaches have the talent to get the most out of their players whether they are in the playoff race or not. Look at the Tennessee Titans.

Jeff Fisher is a respected coach by both fans and players. I've heard players over the years praise Fisher, saying that he's a great teacher on the field AND knows how to communicate off the field. This last point is just as important as the first.

How many times do you see players in all sports tuning out the coach? That can happen over time when a coach doesn't have the social skills to communicate with athletes, that can result in burn-out or players tuning out the coach. When that happens, a team is finished, because the players don't care. Tennessee overcame a 3 game losing streak in mid-season, where everything was going wrong, to go on a 2-1 SU/ATS run. The only game they lost was at home to San Diego in overtime, a game they should have won as a home dog.

A similar thing happened a year ago. The Titans had little shot of making the playoffs, but they are played hard down the stretch and covered the number in 7 of 8 games. They also won 5 of 7 games despite being an underdog in every game but one!

At the same time, there was a situation percolating in Minnesota that was worth watching closely. Safety Darren Sharper called for the Vikings to make changes on offense following a 23-13 loss at Chicago. "Everybody gets paid to do a job," Sharper said. "If you're not executing your job, changes need to be made." They were on a 1-4 SU/0-5 ATS run at the time under first-year coach Brad Childress. Childress has been criticized for discipline problems, clock management and play calling.

Think the KC Chiefs have been playing hard for Herm Edwards? Or the Ravens for Brian Billick? On the other side of the coin is the Phildelphia Eagles. They have gotten any breaks this season, losing 5 games by 4 points or less. Yet, there they were with little to play for nearly beating the Patriots on the road as a 24-point dog. They did it again in a surprising 10-6 upset at Dallas. That made the Eagles 3-1 ATS as a dog this season.

I recall a year ago the Cleveland Browns had no shot of making the postseason, but they were playing hard at home, pulling off a stunning upset of Kansas City, followed by a tough loss at Pittsburgh. The one bright spot in the loss was rookie quarterback Derek Anderson played well, completing 21-of-37 passes for 276 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Anderson hardly seemed rattled by the Steelers' rush, and he stood in the pocket well. That was something he and the Browns built on for their surprising run in 2007.

Remember that in 2005, the first under respected head coach Romeo Crennel, the Browns didn't quit or pack it in. Despite a 6-10 season, the Browns went 3-1 ATS their final four games of 2005, even beating the Ravens and Raiders as a dog. Coaching is a significant aspect to how a team prepares and plays, and it can be even more important this time of the year with respects to who plays hard and covers and who is just going through the motions.

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