The Hunt for NFL Pretenders



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

Normally on Sundays, we'll preview the prime time game on NBC because it's typically a marquee matchup that everyone's very interested in.

Dallas at Green Bay was supposed to be a marquee matchup. Instead, the 1-6 Dallas Cowboys get a chance to either show a national audience that they've thrown in the towel on the season...or to rise up and embarrass a Green Bay team that's been struggling to get points on the board.

Basically...if Jon Kitna doesn't throw interceptions, it will probably be a ball game. If he does, it won't. Do you want 1,000 words about THAT?! There will be better games on other Sunday Nights, and we'll go back to previewing those when people are excited about the matchups.

Even if you don't want to watch the Sunday Night Game you can still win it! The Hurley Network's on-scene sources are wired into the action at Lambeau Field tonight and are primed for the winner! Click here to win tonight, with two bonus plays from the daytime card!

Today we thought it would be a good time to get caught up with a stat combination that helps you uncover pretenders in the NFL

Turnover Differential
Strength of Schedule

Turnovers are the most fickle of football stats, so you have to be very careful using them. High quality teams will win the risk/reward equation over time, giving them edges in this stat over a series of seasons. It is possible for mediocre (or worse) teams to get lucky over a half season stretch though, and create the illusion of quality when it's mostly luck.

How can you tell the difference between a +8 differential that's legitimate, and a +8 differential that's mostly luck? You look at strength of schedules.

Teams who are +8 vs. bad schedules are probably just abusing weak opponents, and benefitting from turnovers that won't be happening when they step up in class. Teams who are +8 vs. good schedules are probably executing at a very high level and honoring the risk/reward element. Now, there are even exceptions to THESE rules of thumb! Turnovers are that fickle. But, as we run through the numbers, we think you'll see that the combination helps you find pretenders.

Let's start at the top. Here are the NFL teams currently leading the turnover differential tables, with strength of schedule from the USA Today computers in parenthesis:

Pittsburgh +9 (3rd)
Washington +8 (13th)
Tampa Bay +8 (26th)
Philadelphia +7 (11th)
NY Jets +7 (15th)
New England +7 (18th)
Tennessee +6 (20th)

Pittsburgh is clearly legit, managing a league best turnover differential while playing a brutally tough schedule. And, their star quarterback missed the first month because of a suspension! This is why many pundits see Pittsburgh as the best team in the league right now. They didn't play that way last Sunday Night at New Orleans. Maybe they were looking ahead to a Monday Night divisional game with Cincinnati.

Tampa Bay jumps out as a pretender. They've got a great differential, but have played a horrible schedule. Is this a team that strikes you as somebody who could avoid turnovers once they start playing good teams? The Bucs have certainly improved from last season, and are showing legitimate promise. They've caught some breaks with turnovers and victories in coin flip games.

We'd have to say the rest of this hunk is fairly legitimate, with most playing schedules near league average give or take a few spots. Let's keep going.

Atlanta +5 (16th)
Kansas City +5 (31st)
Cincinnati +4 (7th)
Indianapolis +3 (19th)
Seattle +3 (29th)
Green Bay +2 (17th)
Oakland +2 (27th)
St. Louis +2 (32nd)
Detroit +1 (9th)
Cleveland 0 (2nd)

We've stacked the ties using schedule strength as a tie-breaker. So, even though Atlanta and Kansas City are both at +5, you can see that KC looks much more like a pretender because they played the second easiest schedule in the 32-team league. You're starting to see a lot of media coverage suggesting that Kansas City is a legitimate Super Bowl threat this week. Let us jump in to show you why this probably isn't true. They've played a very weak schedule. That can get you into the playoffs in a bad division. It won't get you past teams like Pittsburgh, New England, the NY Jets, or Indianapolis (who the Chiefs lost to by 10 points) in January.

Seattle, Oakland, and St. Louis are all teams from the Western divisions who have posted misleading records this season because of strength of schedule advantages. We don't believe any of the three are as good as their won-lost records would suggest. All have favorable turnover differentials now, but would very likely be negative vs. league average schedules, and VERY bad vs. tough schedules.

Crossing over now to teams in the negatives.

Chicago -1 (30th)
Baltimore -2 (8th)
Houston -3 (6th)
San Francisco -4 (23rd)
Denver -4 (10th)
Miami -4 (5th)

You can start a turnaround here by looking at who's slightly negative vs. killer schedules. Teams like Baltimore, Houston, and Miami have played tough schedules, and will probably perform better than you think vs. weak opposition. These teams would have better turnover differentials if they had played league average schedules.

Chicago goes on the pretender list, failing to post a positive differential against a very weak schedule. It's just amazing how many chances Mike Martz gets to run an offense in this league just because he was temporarily (for a few years) ahead of the curve before defenses caught up.

Now the worst of the worst...

NY Giants -5 (24th)
New Orleans -5 (28th)
Dallas -5 (21st)
Buffalo -5 (1st)
Minnesota -7 (4th)
Jacksonville -7 (22nd)
San Diego -8 (14th)
Arizona -9 (12th)
Carolina -10 (25th)

Concerns here for NY Giants fans, who have seen way too many Eli Manning interceptions considering a schedule that shouldn't have caused that volume of implosions. Bad news here as well for the defending Super Bowl champion Saints. They were great at turnovers last year as panicky opponents kept throwing the ball to the wrong team. That's disappeared, as has New Orleans' ability to intidimate people.

Buffalo and Minnesota go on the 'better than their won-lost records' list because brutal schedules have hurt their cause. We're not saying they'd be great in turnovers vs. better schedules. But, they'd be closer to even, and it would have yielded a few more victories.

Jacksonville and Carolina are even worse than it seems, performing badly in turnovers vs. soft schedules.

We strongly suggest you write this data down in your schedules today so it can assist your handicapping process in Sunday and Monday NFL action. You don't want to bet on teams who have been lucky so far. Luck just doesn't hold up in this league. You want to bet on quality at affordable prices.

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Games getting special handicapping attention from us today are:
San Diego at Houston
Tampa Bay at Atlanta
NY Jets at Detroit
New England at Cleveland
NY Giants at Seattle
Kansas City at Oakland
Indianapolis at Philadelphia

And, you should know that we have a HUGE play on today's slate. Be sure you call before the early games have started so you don't miss a single BIG JUICY WINNER!

Back tomorrow to preview Pittsburgh/Cincinnati. And, don't forget that you can pump the profits even more with early season NBA. Six games are set for Sunday and Monday...with some possible college hoop bonuses coming up tomorrow night.



This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by and For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.


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