I had a math teacher somewhere along the way tell a room full of dubious high school students that they'd have to use probabilities throughout their daily life. Teachers love to say things like that. They have to. How else are you going to be frightened into memorizing the quadratic equation other than knowing your soufflé will collapse if you get the 'a' and the 'b' on the wrong side of that zany looking line with a checkmark at the front of it?
The trick didn't work on me. My liberal arts education required me to take exactly two math classes (technically three, since I had to redo finite math) in college. But the most absurd thing about being told probabilities were going to be a regular part of your adult life is that everyone already knew that, even the kid in the "pass Scooby the doobie" t-shirt in the back row knew that.
The mistake the guy in the pleated Dockers and pastel polo shirt made was underselling a group of bored teens on just how important probability would be to them. If only there were a better way to relate odds and probability to the teenage slacker.
Gambling odds are different than straight up probabilities because a bookmaker has to factor in profitability, which is ascertained in part by their assessment of the likelihood of a specific outcome. For instance, the Saints and Lions are both 10-point favorites this week, over the Falcons and Buccaneers respectively. Which one of those underdog teams is more likely to cover the spread?
I'm sure there's a formula for determining that. I don't know. I tuned out most of that lecture, duh. But I do know that the Lions are prone to tripping over themselves. The Buccaneers -- in spite of being led by a high school football coach stereotype -- are playing smarter football during their two-game win streak. (I know this because I watched the games, and I read Stephen White's Notebook this week). The Saints and Falcons are a colossal mismatch. One team is riding high; the other team just lost to those very Buccaneers. I know that the probability of the Buccaneers covering a 10-point spread, even in Detroit, is better than the Falcons staying within 10 of the Saints.
And with a hat tip to the teachers who knew we'd be using their lesson plans to gamble on football games, that's a good segue into my picks for Week 12.
All of these are picks against the spread. Our editorial panel made their straight up picks on Wednesday. I'm also trying something a little different this week, arranging picks by confidence level, making it that much easier for you take away only the information you need, and nothing you don't. That strategy got me through high school, and look at me now!
Bet with confidence
Saints (-10) vs. Falcons
What else do I need to say here? But if you want more, how about the fact that Atlanta's last three opponents scored at least 33 points. The Bucs hung 41 on them. Worse still, the Falcons have a -9 turnover differential in their last four games. Look away, Atlanta friends, from what about to say next. Drew Brees is 12-3 against the Falcons since joining the Saints. He's thrown for 300+ yards in 10 of those games, and there's a near certain probability he'll make it 11 this week.
The pick: Saints
But it's Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning? When was the last time those two quarterbacks and their respective teams played a close game against each other? Last season's Manning/Brady bowl was a flop; the Broncos won by 10 and it never felt that close. The probability that the week's most-anticipated game will be the best is almost zero. Even last week's game between the Chiefs and Broncos underwhelmed compared to the Monday night game.
The pick: Broncos
49ers (-6) vs. Washington Football Team
This looks like a Thursday night game, but it's this week's edition of Monday Night Football. Good news for Washington fans is that three hours with Jon Gruden will actually give you a break from the hot sprots raining down on RGIII at the moment. Sure, Gruden says positive things about everyone, whether they deserve it or not, but after the last five days, those platitudes will taste like Champagne.
The pick: 49ers
Buccaneers vs. Lions (-10)
Now that Bill Sheridan has learned what man coverage is, Darrelle Revis is playing more like the guy from an Island of the same name. Put Revis on Calvin Johnson, and stop Reggie Bush with one of the league's stingiest run defenses, and there's no way the Lions win this one by 10 points.
Awesome subplot alert: Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh were highly touted prospects coming into the 2010 NFL Draft. Suh was considered a little better. It's hard to make the case now, given how well McCoy is playing, that there's a difference between the two. In fact, could McCoy be slightly better these days?
The pick: Buccaneers
Chargers vs. Chiefs (-5)
Finally, the kind of AFC West matchup we've come to expect, one-sided. Five points, even for Alex Smith, is just a starting point for this one. The Chiefs should win this one by 10 points or more.
The pick: Chiefs
Slightly less confident
The Bears defense is a shell of its former self. It's been bleeding rushing yards to opponents this season. That gives the Rams to repeat the formula they used in a Week 10 upset of the Colts: run Zac Stacy 30 times, let Kellen Clemens pass only when needed.
The Bears offense is more complex than Jeff Fisher's finely tuned field goal machine. The outcome in this one hinges on the matchup of the Rams pass rush against the Bears offensive line. Chicago's only allowed 16 sacks all season. It won't be as easy for St. Louis' front four to feast on this team like it has against so many backup-laden and inferior blocking units. Then you've got the problem of a leaky secondary matched up against big men like Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. St. Louis could definitely win this one, but the safer bet here is on the Bears.
The pick: Bears
We all know how and why the Jaguars are as bad as they are; they lack talent. The Texans' struggles were harder to understand. They have their problems too, and it goes beyond Matt Schaub. When two bad teams meet, a double-digit spread is a wild card. The Jags have covered the spread twice this season, both times on the road. The same goes for Houston. A 10-point spread is just too generous for two equally crappy teams.
The pick: Jaguars
Colts vs. Cardinals (-1)
There will be hugs. Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck pay a visit to the desert for a date with an old friend, Bruce Arians. In case you forgot, there was a human interest story surrounding those fellas last year. It really was very inspiring, and Arians got a head coaching gig out of it.
The pick: Cardinals
You want to bet against Magic Matt McGloin? Be my guest. Then again, you know he'll eventually tail off and wind up with a backup job somewhere else in two years. But not yet. This week, he'll be adding one more nail to Mike Munchak's coaching career.
The pick: Raiders
"Someone's got to get that last Wild Card spot," said Tyson Clabo. "Why not us?" Why not, indeed. A trip to the playoffs might just be the only thing that can save Jeff Ireland's job right now, maybe Joe Philbin's too. The Dolphins are .500, and they've won two of three games since the bullying thing surfaced. However, Clabo happens to be part of an offensive line that does as poorly protecting the quarterback as it does preventing harassment.
So my answer to Clabo, for this week anyway, would be: because the Panthers defensive line will punish you in ways not even Richie Incognito could imagine.
The pick: Panthers
Bet at your own risk
If you buy into the theory that the Jets alternate wins and losses -- which is as good a theory as any to explain the Jets -- New York should have this one in the bag.
Rex Ryan has never won against the Ravens in two games since becoming head coach of the Jets. But he never faced this version of the Ravens, one that looks like a terrible mismatch for a very good Jets defense. You could say the same thing about the Ravens, a solid defense without much help from their offensive teammates. All things considered, this is a fairly even matchup, which makes it hard to pick.
The Ravens have a 4-1 record against the spread at home. The Jets are 2-3 against the spread on the road. Geno Smith's been able to bounce back from his bad outings, but he hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7.
The pick: Ravens
Remember when every team in the AFC North could have been a contender? Ok, we never really made that assumption about the Browns, and they seem to be the one team that's actually kind of close to preseason expectations: improved, but still flawed.
The Steelers are playing better than they were. This is a problem because Mike Tomlin thinks it only proves his theory about not having fun.
The Browns beat the Steelers in Cleveland last year, and they haven't lost to an AFC North opponent at home this season, in just two games. I'm picking the Browns here, if only because I want to live in a world where Jason Campbell has a real chance at making the playoffs for the first time ever.
The pick: Browns
The good news is that Adrian Peterson is going to play in this one. The bad news is that Christian Ponder is going to play too, so is Scott Tolzien, the Packers backup quarterback. Adrian Peterson almost single-handedly beat the Packers last season, rushing for a 199 yards and one touchdown (plus a receiving touchdown) in a Week 17 win.
Green Bay is the better team, quarterbacks being a push in this case. But are you really confident enough in the Packers without Aaron Rodgers to win by five points?
The pick: Vikings
The Giants have won four games in a row, and a fifth win would make them only the second team in history to lose its first six and win its next five. It's not such an impressive feat when you look at the teams the Giants beat in their last four games (Vikings, Eagles, Raiders and Packers). The only one of those teams that wasn't using a backup quarterback for the majority of the game was the Raiders. That's right, the Giants' win streak includes revealing what everyone already knew about Matt Barkley.
Slam dunk for the Cowboys, right? No, not at all, because this is the Cowboys, America's team because America and Americans are fundamentally dysfunctional. It's in our national DNA.
Also part of our DNA, second chances. Monte Kiffin, Bill Callahan, Derek Dooley, Rod Marinelli ... Dallas' coaching staff is filled with second chancers. Jason Garrett could be looking for a second chance of his own after this season, pending the outcome of another disappointing Week 17 showdown for the division title, probably.
Predicting this game is impossible, because the NFC East is the ugly underside of parity. Since Dallas did win its first game with the Giants this season, I'll go with the Giants to win this one, stoking the fires of a three team race to nowhere.