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NFL FInal Week: Meaningful Games vs. Throwing in the Towel

   by Al McMordie - 12/25/2011

This is a good week to read the newspapers. Not your hometown local news, but using the Internet to read up on NFL teams. You should do this all the time, of course, but if you don’t, this is a particularly good week to read newspapers in every NFL city. Some teams will be playing as if their postseason life depended on the outcome. Other teams will not be as interested in playing and may even bench key players.

Chicago, for instance, benched QB Caleb Hanie last week after a dismally stretch while losing four in a row to torpedo their postseason chances. They will ride out the season with 32-year old QB Luke McCown - for better or worse. On the other hand, he couldn’t be any worse.

The Patriots, on the other hand, will be playing all out despite having already wrapped up the AFC East. Not just because Coach Bill Belichick is a hard driving coach, but because they have a great chance to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, something that wasn’t in the cards until a late season win at Denver and losses by the Steelers and Ravens the same weekend.

You can learn a lot by reading local beat writers who regularly cover a team. It’s their job to unearth lots of data, quotes and tidbits regarding a team, such as who is banged up, and quotes from players about how things are going in practice. It’s a smart handicapper’s job to cull this information in search of wagering value.

The Colts started 0-13 but have since won 2 in a row. It shouldn’t come as a shock, though, that the offense has been vastly improved since QB Dan Orlovsky stepped in. Even in a loss at New England, Orlovsky was outstanding throwing for over 340 yards and completing 30 of 37 passes. Benching Curtis Painter and going with Orlovsky changed the Colts offense from horrendous to mediocre – enough of a step in the parity-driven NFL to score points and steal a few upset wins over Tennessee and Houston.

Speaking of Houston, their Coach Gary Kubiak made some interesting remarks last week. Even though the Texans have already sewed up the division title, they still had playoff seedings at stake as they headed to Indianapolis. WR Andre Johnson had missed two straight games with a hamstring injury but declared himself ready to go against the Colts. But the head coach didn’t agree. Kubiak announced Johnson would sit because he wanted him ready for the playoffs. That spoke volumes about where the coach’s priorities are – and it wasn’t a shock to see the Texans lose as a favorite at the Colts (with virtually no offense). Think Johnson would have made a difference?

Teams like the Patriots, Lions, Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Jets and Falcons have plenty to play for the last game. Other teams have less at stake, and some nothing at stake, so it’s worth watching closely how they approach the last week of the season, resting players or not. A few years ago when the Eagles had already sewn up the No. 1 seed in the NFL it was printed in several Philadelphia newspapers that Eagles coach Andy Reid would be resting many of his key players for the last two games.

Philly had already locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and they certainly didn’t want to lose any more players after getting stung by the loss of a star wide receiver late in the season. The Eagles showed nothing the last two games, going 0-2 SU/ATS in losses to the Rams (20-7) and Bengals (38-10).

You can identify potential second half wagers, too, with teams that may play their starters in the first half and then bench them in the second. Another factor that can aid a capper is injuries. Current key players battling injuries are QB Mark Sanchez, QB Tavaris Jackson (ribs), QB Mike Vick (ribs, hand), QB Ben Roethlisberger (everything), WR Andre Johnson, WR Greg Jennings (knee). An injury to a key player might not be serious enough to keep him out of next week’s game, but it’s possible that the coaching may go their third-string quarterback since some games are meaningless for some teams. This might not be the case in the middle of the season, as players often play with limps, bumps and bruises. But in the final game, that could change with so little (or so much) at stake. In short, some coaching staffs already out of it might think more of health and taking an early look at next year’s roster. If you find any key players nursing an injury, keep tabs through the papers daily to see if you can gauge whether that athlete will play, whether he’s 100 percent, or that he might sit.

Quotes from players and coaches can be valuable, too. If a team is off a devastating loss (like the Jaguars), see what players are saying during the week. They might be emotionally out of it. Other players might speak of the importance of an upcoming game, or perhaps even have revenge on their minds if they were embarrassed the previous meeting. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Colts, Rams and Vikings, too, a trio of teams “fighting” for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.

The important point is that handicapping and analyzing games doesn’t just happen on Friday, two days before the opening kickoff. You can find key information all week long that can help you beat the spread on game-day!

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