By Brian Burke
This is the time of year when the sports media begins to coronate a "best team in the league." The hype is way ahead of reality after only five or six games for each team. It's hard enough to know which teams are the absolute best after 16 games, much less six, so it might be best to reserve judgment. Injuries are just starting to take their toll, and the breaks (bouncing balls and bad calls) are just starting to even out. At this point, it's best to look past a team's record or point totals to see which ones are simply able to move the ball efficiently and stop opponents from doing the same. They're the ones likely to come out on top in the weeks ahead.
Some weeks feature lots of lopsided games, while others are heavy with evenly matched opponents. This week is one of the latter, so it should be a wild ride.
Last week, I had seven out of the 15 games picked correctly off the spread (not including the Thursday night contest). Will Leitch got seven out of 15 games as well. Our totals so far are all tied up: 40 for me, 40 for Will. Here are our picks for Week 7.
Note: The Machine's outcome probabilities are based on who will win the game, not the point spread. The score predictions are Burke's own estimates when factoring in the win probability, which is based on a logistic regression model of projected core team efficiency statistics. For more on Burke's model, click here.
FALCONS: 20 (31% win probability)
RAVENS: 30 (69%)
VEGAS: Ravens (-7)
Atlanta's offense has fallen down to earth a bit in recent weeks, but their defense hasn't shown any improvement. Baltimore's offensive line is playing well despite significant injuries.
After winning seasons in the first five seasons under Mike Smith, the Falcons have gone 6-16. This seems ominous.
GIANTS: 21 (34%)
COWBOYS: 38 (66%)
VEGAS: Cowboys (-6.5)
The Cowboys' big win in Seattle is giving them a lot of attention, most of it deserved. Their numbers make them a solidly top-10 team. Their defense is playing much better than expected but remains a below-average squad.
The most Cowboys thing would actually be to lose this game.
JETS: 10 (36%)
PATRIOTS: 31 (64%)
VEGAS: Patriots (-10)
It took New England two games to jump from league-worst passing efficiency to league-average. The Jets are now a distant last in that all-important category.
This just won't feel the same without Mark Sanchez, you know?
49ERS: 20 (37%)
BRONCOS: 27 (63%)
VEGAS: Broncos (-7)
San Francisco is starting to look like the team we expected them to be. Denver is looking even better, mostly thanks to a defense with the league's second-best pass defense and fifth-ranked run defense.
The Broncos have a real chance to go 3-1 against the NFC West, the best division in football.
SEAHAWKS: 31 (61%)
RAMS: 20 (39%)
VEGAS: Seahawks (-7)
Quick quiz: Which QB has the better net passing efficiency, Super Bowl MVP Russell Wilson or in-case-of-emergency-break-glass Austin Davis? I wouldn't ask if it wasn't for Davis' 7.4 yards per attempt compared to Wilson's 7.0. Seattle's defense is, surprisingly, squarely average in yards allowed per pass attempt and half less than the league-average in interception rate. It's only their running game that's been carrying them so far, but it should be enough to overpower St. Louis on the road.
The Rams should be required to wear those uniforms every game. They're the only interesting thing about the team.
CHIEFS: 24 (39%)
CHARGERS: 31 (61%)
VEGAS: Chargers (-4)
San Diego's weaknesses are its running game on both sides of the ball, but Kansas City's numbers don't suggest they'll be able to take advantage.
Not that anyone in Kansas City will mind too much.
PANTHERS: 17 (39%)
PACKERS: 24 (61%)
VEGAS: Packers (-7)
Carolina looks squarely average, though, they are managing to win an abnormal amount of turnover battles. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best, but the stats can't forget his early-season struggles. Green Bay's defense has been stout and is generating takeaways.
The light went on for Cam Newton last week, and against the worst rush defense in football, I think he's about to take the league over.
VIKINGS: 13 (40%)
BILLS: 21 (60%)
VEGAS: Bills (-6)
Early season high hopes in Buffalo have been dashed, but they've got enough to hold off Minnesota's struggling offense.
I already miss the Bills Excitement Boomlet. It was charming there for a second.
TITANS: 20 (41%)
WASHINGTON: 24 (59%)
VEGAS: Washington (-5)
This game has sloppy written all over it. Both teams have big penalty rates and high turnover rates. Washington can move the ball better, has a better run defense and has home-field advantage.
Let's not forget: Daniel Snyder spat at the Cardinals' stadium after losing last week. Cool guy.
TEXANS 23 (41%)
STEELERS 28 (59%)
VEGAS: Steelers (-4)
Houston's main problem continues to be interceptions. Plus, for all the (well-deserved) attention on J.J. Watt, the rest of the defense is lackluster. In a down year, Pittsburgh is still 3-3 and dangerous.
Is this the official oh-man-the-Steelers-aren't-good-anymore Monday Night Football exposure? Could be.
BROWNS: 28 (59%)
JAGUARS: 23 (41%)
VEGAS: Browns (-6)
Even I'm surprised by this one. Cleveland has a scorching offense, very few turnovers, and their defense is trending up. Jacksonville appears to be no better than in recent years across the board; their one bright spot is a very low penalty rate. The only reason this matchup is competitive is the Jaguars' home-field advantage.
Do you realize how close the Browns are to being undefeated right now? Five points away!
SAINTS: 14 (42%)
LIONS: 17 (58%)
VEGAS: Lions (-2.5)
This is a game of extremes. New Orleans has one of the league's best offenses, and they're moving the ball better on the ground more than with Brees' arm. But their defense is full of holes and they can't generate turnovers. Detroit's defense has been lights out.
Am I crazy, or does it look like Carolina could end up running away with the NFC South?
CARDINALS: 20 (53%)
RAIDERS: 17 (47%)
VEGAS: Cardinals (-3.5)
Arizona is a competitive team but generally overrated. They have yet to throw an interception and their defense is generating them at nearly twice the league-average rate. They certainly deserve credit and that explains most of how they've won to date, but interceptions tend to be one of the least consistent facets of the game.
The Raiders were a little feisty last week, but I suspect they got that out of their system.
BENGALS: 24 (51%)
COLTS: 23 (49%)
VEGAS: Colts (-3)
Dalton continues to play out of his mind, even without star WR A.J. Green. Accounting for Green's absence, the Bengals have a slightly better passing attack than Indy and a clear advantage on defense. This game will have implications in January.
It's like Patriots-Broncos, Lite!
DOLPHINS: 16 (49%)
BEARS: 17 (51%)
VEGAS: Bears (-3.5)
These two teams are inconsistent and hard to figure out. Miami has been able to run successfully without a threatening passing game and has one of the better defenses in the league. Chicago's passing game went from spectacular in 2013 to purely average in 2014, and they've been surviving on interceptions and the play of rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller.
The Bears are the most impossible team in the NFL to predict. But I think I want Jay Cutler to play until he's 90: No one in the NFL is more unwittingly entertaining.
Brian Burke is a former Navy fighter pilot and tactics expert. He is the founder of Advanced Football Analytics, the site that made modern football analysis a reality.