From the “Did you know?” department: I actually beat out Tom Hanks for both the Forrest Gump and Bosom Buddies roles, but turned them down due to scheduling conflicts. I also bankrolled Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson’s fortunes, taught Derek Jeter how to pick up women and invented the color blue. Oh, and I’m 11-2 all time with my NFC South win-total recommendations, including 8-0 the last two years.
All absurd claims, right? Nope. Not the last one. Not to sound like one of those Saturday-morning AM-radio “scamdicappers”—I’m 17-1 with my college football Game of the Year plays. Call right now for this HUGE winner!— but I really have owned the NFC South in my four years performing this exercise. Can I explain it? Damn right, I can: dumb luck. Funny thing about dumb luck, though: You never know when it’s going to end.
With that, let’s conclude my 2014 NFL win-total selections with the NFC South and NFC West, once again using the best available numbers/odds from MGM Resorts, William Hill, Station Casinos and Westgate Las Vegas (formerly LVH) …
Saints (10 wins): First a tip to those who like to play the “middle” game: This number ranges from 9½ (Station and William Hill) to 10½ (MGM). You have to lay some big juice at 9½-over and 10½-under, but the opportunity is there. Me, I’m targeting the Westgate’s number, because unless Drew Brees (5,000-plus passing yards three straight years) takes a sudden turn south, New Orleans is a lock to win at least 11 games—something it has done four straight years that Sean Payton has been allowed to coach. The Saints could be 5-0 entering their bye week after facing the Falcons, Browns, Vikings, Cowboys and Bucs. Also, most of their toughest non-divisional games (Packers, Bengals, Ravens, 49ers) will be at home. Over (-145, Westgate)
Falcons (8): While I stand by that “dumb luck” statement, I will add that one of the reasons I believe I’ve had success with win-total predictions is I don’t overreact to what I consider “outlier” seasons. To wit: In the first five years of the coach Mike Smith/QB Matt Ryan era, Atlanta finished 11-5, 9-7, 13-3, 10-6 and 13-3. In 2013, the Falcons slipped to 4-12, enduring one of those “everything-goes-wrong” campaigns. Granted, with games against Brees (twice), Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger (among others), Atlanta’s defense (27th last year) needs to improve greatly. Count me among the few who believe it will. Over (-155, MGM)
Panthers (8): Speaking of outlier seasons: From 2009-12, Carolina went 8-8, 2-14, 6-10 and 7-9. Last year, the Panthers jumped to 12-4. Call me crazy for being a wee bit skeptical that coach Ron Rivera morphed from Art Shell into Bill Walsh basically overnight. And while Carolina’s defense is sensational, its non-divisional road schedule isn’t: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Philadelphia and Minnesota … outdoors … on the final day of November. Under (-135, Westgate)
Buccaneers (7½): I’m torn on the 2014 Bucs. On the one hand, I like the roster upgrades and the return from injury of several key players, particularly on offense (where Tampa ranked dead last in total yards last year). I also like the new coach (Lovie Smith posted an 8-8 record or better in six of his final eight seasons in Chicago). But I could also see a scenario where the Bucs enter their mid-October bye week no better than 1-5 after starting out against Carolina, St. Louis, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore. Under (-145 William Hill)
Seahawks (11): First, let’s dispel the “Super Bowl hangover” myth: You have to go back to 2003 for the last time a reigning champion followed up with a losing record. In fact, eight of the last 10 champs won at least nine games the ensuing season. But here’s the other side of that coin: Since 1999, only five of 15 Super Bowl winners have won as many as 11 games the following season. So NFL history doesn’t favor Seattle. Neither does franchise history: The Seahawks went 11-5 and 13-3 the last two seasons after previously winning 11 or more just twice from 1976-2011. Can they make it three straight 11-plus-win seasons? When 12 of their 16 games will be played against the NFC West and AFC West, plus Green Bay and Philadelphia? Not quite. Under (Even, Station)
49ers (10½): As tough as it is to bet against the Seahawks, it’s even tougher to fade San Francisco, which is only 36-11-1 under coach Jim Harbaugh. But the Niners are in the same difficult scheduling boat as Seattle, and—unlike Seattle—their defense is regressing. Beyond that, I keep having this vision: Colin Kaepernick scrambles, he’s hit hard! He’s not getting up! And in comes Blaine Gabbert. Then again, Gabbert did lead the Niners on one touchdown drive in the first three preseason games—or one more than Kaepernick. Under (-125, William Hill)
Cardinals (7½): In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m big on early-season momentum (both positive and negative). So while the Cardinals (10-6 last year) appear to be on the come, their first four games are brutal: They host the Chargers in a late Monday kickoff, then travel cross-country to play the Giants (early kickoff), then the 49ers at home, a bye week, and at the Broncos. There’s also this closing schedule: at Seahawks, at Falcons, vs. Chiefs, at Rams, vs. Seahawks, at 49ers. In other words, Arizona is the front-runner to win this year’s “They’re better than their record indicates” award. Under (+135, William Hill)
Rams (N/A): I was all set to tag the Rams, who won seven games in each of coach Jeff Fisher’s first two seasons, as my surprise team of 2014. Then QB Sam Bradford suffered a season-ending knee injury August 23. In other shocking news, water is wet and doors are hard. As soon as Bradford went down, oddsmakers took down St. Louis’ win total, which was 7½. The number will get adjusted soon—and probably over-adjusted. This is still an improved team with a top-flight defensive front. Besides the Rams were 3-4 last year when Bradford got hurt and 4-5 afterward. Over