By Rufus Peabody and Will Leitch
Last week on Man vs. Machine -- an idiot who is barely able to write his name in the ground with a stick, picking against the NFL point spread vs. an intelligent algorithm produced by some of the finest minds in football analytics -- the Machine got two of its top five picks correct. Overall last week, Will got four picks correct against the spread vs. five total for the Machine.
The eternal battle between robots and humanity re-commences here. Nothing less than the survival of our species is at stake. Let's hear from our "Machine," Rufus Peabody.
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Bruce Arians got some flack this week for not being able to run the clock out late in the fourth quarter against the Ravens. I was on a date, so I didn't get to watch the second half of the game, but when I flipped on ESPN afterward, I was surprised to learn that the Cardinals mismanaged the clock, since there is no coach I would rather have salting away a lead than Arians. My reasoning is pretty simple: Arians plays to win, rather than playing not to lose, like most NFL coaches. The version of the so-called "four-minute offense" most NFL teams employ is the ugly stepbrother to the dreaded prevent defense. Most of the time, it involves running the ball three times against an opponent expecting the run, punting, and relying on your defense to stop an offense with nothing to lose. There is a good reason teams behave sub-optimally in these situations, and it's the same reason they punt more than they should: incentives. When a coach makes a decision deviating from the traditional, overly conservative league norms, he's remembered for it if it's unsuccessful, but rarely noticed when it works. And in this day and age of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, coaches do not want to be seen as actively bad.
When I actually looked through the play-by-play of the Cardinals' four-minute offense (well, technically their drive started with 4:26 remaining), it looked like typical Bruce Arians play calling -- some runs, some passes. Of course, nobody in the media mentioned this non-conservative play calling that generated two first downs, took two minutes off the clock and forced the Ravens to burn all three timeouts. What they do remember is Carson Palmer getting penalized for intentional grounding with 2:27 remaining and the Ravens out of timeouts. Sure, the play didn't work out, but it was not due to a flaw in the decision-making process; the play called was a screen pass, and a first down would have ended the game. Arians said after the game "that's the time to go for the throat." He was doing what he's quietly done so well for the last few seasons -- playing to win. -- Rufus Peabody
(Home teams are spelled out with all caps. The win probability percentage for each team is in parentheses on the Machine's line. NOTE: Those WP percentages do not indicate confidence against the spread, it just basically tells you which teams the algorithm likes to win the game outright. So if you are in a survivor pool, for instance, you might just want to ignore the scores we predicted and just go by percentages. In any case, these are listed in order of confidence against the spread, not confidence in outright winners. Hope that's clear!)
Five most confident picks against the spread from the "Machine"
Man: Vikings 19, BEARS 17
You know, sometimes lately I have been forgetting there are other teams in this division than just the Packers.
Machine: BEARS (60 percent) 22, Vikings 19
Last week, I said the Vikings were a bad team. Despite their win last week, I feel confident saying they are even worse than I thought. Chicago is at home and coming off a bye.
Man: RAVENS 24, Chargers 21
The disappointing, slightly snake-bitten bowl. Winner gets their rebuilding process slightly stunted!
Machine: RAVENS (70 percent) 29, Saints 23
The Ravens finally return home after playing five of their first seven games on the road. They may be the best 1-6 team in recent memory. Will this be the week it finally shows?
Vegas: Ravens -3
Man: Packers 24, BRONCOS 10
Advanced metrics folks have been down on the Broncos all year, and the Packers expose them, reducing the number of undefeated teams to four.
Machine: Packers (51 percent) 23, BRONCOS 23
Gary Kubiak's vaunted running game looks nothing like what we saw last year in Baltimore. Is this the week we finally see a Peyton Manning offense again?
Vegas: Packers -3
Man: Cardinals 31, BROWNS 14
The New York Times claims the Cardinals are the best team in the NFL despite their two losses, but that Ravens game was shaky and the team has been mistake-prone of late. The Browns should probably cure that, though.
Machine: Cardinals 27 (72 percent), BROWNS 20
Why isn't Arians wearing his Kangol hat on the sideline this year?
Vegas: Cardinals -4.5
Man: Chiefs 23, Lions 21 (in London)
This feels like one of those brutal Lions games they at least do the courtesy of playing 3,000 miles away.
Machine: Chiefs (59 percent) 26, Lions 23 (in London)
Yes, the Lions are bad. But now they have Jim Bob Cooter calling the plays on offense!
Vegas: Chiefs -5.5
The rest of the slate (listed in order of Machine "confidence" ATS)
Man: PATRIOTS 31, Dolphins 13
If Dan Campbell can turn what the Dolphins were three weeks ago into a team that can compete with the Patriots on national television, he doesn't just deserve that job full-time, he deserves every job. I wouldn't count on it.
Machine: PATRIOTS (81 percent) 31, Dolphins 20
While I still don't know what Campbell actually does, I'd advise him to keep doing it. Two weeks ago, Massey-Peabody rated Miami the 26th-best team in the NFL; two weeks later, they are No. 10.
Vegas: Patriots -8
Man: FALCONS 27, Buccaneers 20
Just for fun, let's let Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers blow massive leads every week. It can be a weekly holiday.
Machine: FALCONS (77 percent) 28, Buccaneers 19
This gets my vote for the most uninteresting game of the week.
Vegas: Falcons -7
Man: RAMS 31, 49ers 14
Anybody else starting to worry that Todd Gurley will be for the Rams what Kevin Durant was for the Sonics?
Machine: RAMS (71 percent) 22, 49ers 16
Trent Baalke drafted a punter in the fifth round. That punter ranks 28th in the league. The court rules in favor of Jim Harbaugh.
Vegas: Rams -8
Man: Seahawks 27, COWBOYS 10
Here come the Seahawks. This is one of those matchups that looks a lot more enticing at first glance than it really is.
Machine: Seahawks (65 percent) 24, COWBOYS 19
I guess Brandon Weeden wasn't the problem after all.
Vegas: Seahawks -6
Man: Jets 17, RAIDERS 16
Look out here: This one's a tricky beast. How awesome is it that this is a potential wild-card play-in game?
Machine: Jets (59 percent) 23, RAIDERS 20
The Jets showed they are a legitimate contender in defeat last week. The Raiders are looking like a surprisingly average team.
Vegas: Jets -2
Man: STEELERS 34, Bengals 33
The most fun game of the week. The Bengals are our first of the final six undefeated teams to fall.
Machine: Bengals (56 percent) 24, STEELERS 22
Big Ben is expected to return, which should provide a large boost to the Steelers. But the Bengals are coming off a bye and are still the team to beat.
Vegas: Bengals -1.5
Man: Giants 21, SAINTS 20
The Giants are destined to be the team I am wrong about constantly, every week. That whole division is a glorious mess.
Machine: SAINTS (60 percent) 27, Giants 24
Randomness giveth and randomness taketh away. And the Giants were on the lucky end last week, needing a plus-4 turnover margin to barely squeak by the Cowboys.
Vegas: Saints -3
Man: PANTHERS 29, Colts 24
Cam Newton finally gets the huge group hug from ESPN and "Monday Night Football" he has been waiting for. And the Colts will still win their division by three games.
Machine: PANTHERS (72 percent) 27, Colts 20
With the Colts coming up on their bye week, this has the potential to be one of Chuck Pagano's last games as an NFL head coach.
Vegas: Panthers -7
Man: TEXANS 9, Titans 7
Get excited, folks. Is FanDuel even taking bets on this game? (Oh, sorry, it's not betting. I forget sometimes.)
Machine: TEXANS (56 percent) 23, Titans 21
Too bad "Hard Knocks" hasn't been with the team all year. Would have loved to hear Ryan Mallett's most recent excuses for showing up late.