(Monday update: Confident, 4-1; NBTF, 3-1; Just Guessing, 3-4; overall 10-6; .625)
I started making weekly picks last year at Xark, finishing with an overall .677 winning percentage for the complete season (.645 against the spread in a four-week experiment), and the traffic to those picks (along with the interest in my weekly power rankings) eventually convinced us to move those features here, where we can talk nothing but football.
Over the course of 2006 I developed a style for handling these things: I tell you my level of confidence, I pick both the winner and against the spread, and I keep my percentages. That way you have some idea of where I'm most and least accurate -- which is valuable when you're the one making tough calls.
As it turns out, I gave more Confident picks (48) than NBTF choices (46). I don't know why, but it's a surprise. Anyway, I finished 37-11 (.770) on Confident picks, 30-16 (.652) on NBTF picks and 34-25 (.576) on games where I was Just Guessing. If you combine the Confident and NBTF categories, my winning percentage was .713 on 94 games, compared to .576 on the 59 games I "just guessed."
In other words, there really is a correlation between degrees of confidence and winning percentage. It's actually a pretty strong trend. One could argue that the most important skill in picking football games is the ability to spot which games are toss-ups and which games aren't.
This year I'll be using the Confident/Not-Betting-The-Farm/Just Guessing scale for all 17 weeks, so the numbers should have added significance. For instance, I typically struggle in Week 1, when I'm still learning the teams' identities. Which is why I'll be happy if I can hit on about 55 percent winners this first week. There are huge surprises lurking out there, but they're hardest to spot early.
On to the picks:
CONFIDENT (2006: .770 winning percentage) OUTCOME: 4-1, 4-1 ATS
Atlanta at (-3) Minnesota (early): Vikings. The Norsemen aren't getting much respect this offseason, but they'll finish in the middle of the pack and stay in the wild card hunt up to the final weeks. That starts with a home thumping of the Falcons. ATS: Vikings to win and cover. OUTCOME: Yes, yes.
New England at (+6.5) N.Y. Jets (early): Patriots. The Jets almost stunned the Patriots in Week 2 last season, then came back and pummeled them in the rematch. So you look at those bits of history, with the Jets at home, and conclude... that the Patriots are going to kick the shit out of them. Sorry, Jets fans. ATS: I just don't see this staying close: Patriots. OUTCOME: Yes, yes
Pittsburgh at (+4.5) Cleveland (early): Steelers. I think the Steelers are going to be a better team this year, while I see the Browns making only incremental progress. The Steelers haven't dropped a game to the Browns since 2003, and they typically win these games pretty easily. On a fantasy note, Ben Roethlisberger isn't getting much love from the stat projectors in this game, probably because the Old School Steelers liked to run the ball in situations like this. I think they're going to open it up this week and see what Big Ben can do with the ball. ATS: I like the Steelers' chances to win in a romp. OUTCOME: Yes, yes
N.Y. Giants at (-6) Dallas (SNF): Cowboys. Pardon my French, but I expect the Cowboys to bitch-slap the Giants. ATS: Cowboys. OUTCOME: Yes, yes
Baltimore at (-2.5) Cincinnati (7 p.m. MNF): Ravens. How on Earth do you make the Bengals, who don't even seem inclined to play defense, the favorite against division champion Baltimore? ATS: Thank you, Las Vegas, I'll take this gift, too. Gimme the Ravens. OUTCOME: No, No.
NOT BETTING THE FARM (2006: .652 winning percentage) OUTCOME: 3-1; 3-1
Miami at (-3) Washington (early): Redskins. Don't get me wrong: I don't think the Skins are that good. I'm just doubting Miami. ATS: I'll take the Skins to cover OUTCOME: Yes, no..
Kansas City at (-3) Houston (early): Texans. The Chiefs' aged cornerbacks are savvy professionals, but they'll be hard-pressed to keep up with Houston's big-play receivers in the dome. Look for the Texans to begin establishing an identity as a methodical team with a decent front seven. ATS: I'm sticking with the Texans, as I anticipate a less-than-crisp opener for the Chiefs OUTCOME: Yes, yes.
Tennessee at (-6.5) Jacksonville (early): Jaguars. I'm not convinced that David Garrard is the quarterback who will get the Jags over the hump, but at least team management has made a commitment to him. That gives us a match-up of two athletic QBs with similar styles. Vince Young is the better player, but the Jags are a better team. ATS: That's an awful lot of points for an inconsistent team like Jacksonville to give up. Give me the Titans to cover. OUTCOME: No, yes
Tampa Bay at (-6) Seattle (late): Seahawks. It's always an advantage for the Seahawks when East Coast teams have to fly out for a game. I suspect the Bucs will make a game of this one, but not enough to take the win. ATS: Seahawks. To take Tampa, even with the home team giving six points, requires too much of a leap of faith for me to follow along. OUTCOME: Yes, yes.
JUST GUESSING (2006: .576 winning percentage) OUTCOME: 3-4; 0-7
New Orleans at (-6) Indianapolis (Thursday): Colts. So the Super Bowl Champions meet their NFC doppelganger, and the forecast calls for points early and often. Both teams pass the ball extremely well, and neither is all that good at stopping opposing wide receivers. I'm giving the edge to the champs in this one, but not by much. ATS: Six points seems too much of a cushion for a game like this one, which could easily come down to a final play. Take the Saints to cover. OUTCOME: Yes, no.
Carolina at (-1) St. Louis (early): Rams. Carolina has a veteran defense, so it's always possible that they'll simply turn it on in the regular season after sleep-walking through the preseason. It's hard to get too much of a bead on this game, but this is one the Rams should win, and I think they're mature enough to do it. ATS: Rams to win and cover. OUTCOME: No, no.
Denver at (+3) Buffalo (early): Bills. I'm probably more skeptical of the Broncos than anyone else in the football world, and that's an uncomfortable spot, given the fact that Champ Bailey might be the best defender in the league right now. However, I'm simply not sold on their front seven, and John Lynch has got an awful lot of wear on those tires of his. As for the Bills, they're no great shakes on defense, and Bailey is likely to take away their best offensive weapon, WR Lee Evans. This is more of a gut pick than anything else, and it's based on the vibe that Buffalo will occasionally play tough at home. Running counter to that is Denver's habit of starting out hot. ATS: Bills in an upset. OUTCOME: No, no.
Philadelphia at (+3) Green Bay (early): Packers.
Why be this optimistic about the Packers in Week 1, when I clearly consider Philadelphia to be the better team (No. 8 vs. No. 25 in my power rankings)? Because recently, this has been the kind of game that the Eagles have found a way to lose. And let's be real about the Packers: They've got a good defense and it wouldn't surprise me if Favre started out the season on a hot streak. SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE: I'm changing this pick this morning because of the Green Bay injury report. Donald Driver is likely to play, but he's still gimpy, and WR Greg Jennings is a scratch with a hamstring. But the real killer is Brandon Jackson's concussion. I'm reading reports that suggest he's just not right in the head yet, which means the Packers will have to turn to their third HB option, DeShawn Wynn. I'm taking the Eagles. ATS: I'll take the Eagles here too. OUTCOME: No, no.
Chicago at (-6.5) San Diego (late): Chargers. This is the day's marquee game from a TV standpoint, matching up the two teams I've picked to win their respective conferences. Both are sure to be focused and the overall talent is similar, but I'm giving the nod to the Chargers because they're at home and have more Top Drawer playmakers. Look for a kick-return duel between Devin Hester and Darren Sproles and expect the game to hinge on two things: How the Bears cope with LT, and turnovers.I expect the Chargers will attack Rex Grossman all afternoon, forcing him into costly errors. ATS: Gimme my Bears. We'll at least keep it close. OUTCOME: Yes, no,
Detroit at (-1.5) Oakland (late): Raiders. I know, who really cares about this game? But how many times are you going to see the Raiders as a favorite this season? This is a home field advantage game, and the Raiders win if they can contain the Mike Martz aerial assault outside on grass. They've got the best cornerback you can't pronounce (Nnamdi Asomugha) and a bunch of decent defenders. Josh McCown isn't much of a weapon, but he's at least generally competent, and that should be enough against a Detroit defense that doesn't bring much beside DT Shaun Rogers second-year linebacker Ernie Simms. ATS: Raiders, just because the spread is so narrow. OUTCOME: No, no.
Arizona at (-3) San Francisco (10:15 MNF): 49ers. Who knows what happens in a game this close, with so many possible futures riding on the outcome? I don't. ATS: I'm sticking with the 49ers. OUTCOME: Yes, no.
AGAINST THE SPREAD (ATS) BEST BETS: Vikings, Steelers, Ravens and Saints. (2006 ATS winning percentage. .645; 2006 Best Bets winning percentage, .555) OUTCOME: 2-2.
Point spreads via USA TODAY.