I have to admit I was tempted to just make this entire Week 6 preview out of J.J. Watt GIFs from Thursday night’s Texans-Colts game and call it a column. I know that he’s not better at quarterback than Ryan Fitzpatrick, if only because Fitzpatrick has spent his entire career prepping to play quarterback and Watt is built to play defensive line, but if you gave Watt six months’ notice that he was going to be Houston’s quarterback, don’t you think he would have a shot at being pretty good at it? That goes for any job, really. Watt could run an oil rig. Actually, given time to lift, Watt could perform the tasks of an oil rig with his bare hands. As long as he gets to wear his Bane elbow brace, I believe in J.J. Watt.
After Thursday’s first close game of the year, let’s get to the rest of the Week 6 lines. Lines per the consensus at VegasInsider.com. Home teams in CAPS.
Patriots (-3) over BILLS
Tom Brady’s broken! No, wait, Tom Brady’s fixed! OK, so Brady wasn’t really the problem with the Patriots after all, but Sunday night wasn’t proof the Patriots are going to be a dominant offense every single week from here on out. The Pats dethroned DVOA’s top-ranked defense at the time when they dropped 43 points on the Bengals; this week, they get the third-ranked Bills in Buffalo.
In a way, the Bills might even be a scarier matchup for Brady & Co. than the Bengals were. The weakest part of the New England offensive line has been its interior, and that’s where the Bills are strongest. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is tied for third in football with five sacks, and fellow tackle Kyle Williams was arguably playing even better than Dareus before missing last week’s win over the Lions. Williams and starting linebacker Nigel Bradham should both be back Sunday.
I lack just enough faith in Kyle Orton to flip this and suggest the Bills will cover, but if they do end up winning, I hope they carry Jim Schwartz off the field after the game. Sure, he has no reason to be vindictive about beating the Patriots, but he had no reason to celebrate last week’s win like a conquering hero, so why stop now? I hope the Bills go on a winning streak and carry Schwartz off the field after every win. I hope their sack celebrations are pantomimes of carrying a defensive coordinator on their shoulders. And if New England wins comfortably, I hope somebody on the Patriots has their dad text “We own Bills.”
JETS (+9.5) over Broncos
The referee assigned to this game is 33-year-old rookie Brad Allen, who joined the NFL this year after refereeing in the ACC. I have to admit that he is my new favorite referee, if only because he seems to be taking everything incredibly seriously. Allen makes his various motions for penalties like he just reread the rulebook and practiced against a mirror for hours, like he’s a new teacher being observed by the principal. Here’s his first call, a hold, from Thursday’s Packers-Vikings game:
That’s incredible! If Dave Chappelle’s white-guy voice could be a holding motion, it would be Brad Allen’s. Compare that to the holding call of a veteran referee like Gene Steratore:
Steratore is ready to blow this joint, man. By the time he’s grasped his wrist for the hold, he’s already ready to signal the side and get those chains moving. Get in, get out, go home. Allen, meanwhile? He’s grabbing his arm firmly, dropping his elbow all the way to his waist, looking directly into the camera … just textbook stuff. It’s Don Draper and Bob Benson in stripes. I’m excited about the Brad Allen era.
BROWNS (-1.5) over Steelers
Packers (-3) over DOLPHINS
Jaguars (+6) over TITANS
This is what you had to be worried about with Ken Whisenhunt. Reports from ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen this week both suggested the Titans were considering moving on to third-string quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the team’s sixth-round pick out of LSU, “pretty soon.” With presumed starter Jake Locker likely out this weekend with a thumb injury, Charlie Whitehurst would be the only thing standing between Mettenberger and the starting job.
On one hand, you can understand Whisenhunt’s logic. The Titans are 1-4. If they’re not already out of a playoff spot, they’re pretty close. Whitehurst has been better than anybody expected, but he’s 32 years old and unlikely to be the starting quarterback the next time Tennessee makes the playoffs.1 Why not see what you have with Mettenberger? If he fails, you can always go back to Locker or Whitehurst. The worst-case scenario is that you end up with a high draft pick, which is a more valuable asset than any of these quarterbacks appear to be, anyway.
If Whitehurst has a three-game leash despite playing pretty well in at least two of those games, why did Tennessee give him $4.25 million over two years? To have a veteran backup despite no interest in actually playing that veteran for any stretch of time?
On the other hand, this is exactly the problem Whisenhunt had in Arizona. While he did wonders with Kurt Warner, Whisenhunt repeatedly fell for mediocre quarterbacks who had the look, size, and arm strength of elite NFL quarterbacks without any of the accuracy or skills. Even worse, when he had two or three middling passers to work with, Whisenhunt cycled through them on a regular basis, destroying their confidence while never allowing any of them to settle in and grow. The likes of John Skelton, Max Hall, and Derek Anderson haunt Cardinals fans in their sleep. (More on their current big-armed passer in a bit.)
Mettenberger fits that profile well. He’s got above-average arm strength and won a lot of games during his time at LSU, but he was playing with excellent receivers and left a fair number of completions on the field. He completed just 61.8 percent of his passes in his 30 games at LSU before tearing his ACL, an injury that ended his college career. He’d fit right in with the Skeltons and Halls of the world.
The quarterback whose development will make or break Whisenhunt’s time with the Titans isn’t currently on their roster. It’ll be one of their top picks in 2015 or 2016, and if he stays focused on that one player, Whisenhunt can be a fantastic offensive coordinator and quarterback guru. In terms of identifying and cycling through marginal options, though, Whisenhunt made the same mistake over and over again in Arizona. It would be a shame if he did the same thing in his second head-coaching job, too.
FALCONS (-3) over Bears
Atlanta probably won’t be in position to draft its in-state star prospect, but it appears likely somebody will be coming away from the 2015 NFL draft with Georgia halfback Todd Gurley. The Heisman Trophy candidate was suspended indefinitely on Thursday after allegations surfaced that he signed merchandise for money.
It’s a story with everything mind-numbingly stupid and hypocritical about college athlete compensation built in, including the reported dollar amount ($400) and the entrapping troll who reportedly paid Gurley to sign items and then went website-to-website trying to get a video he took of the autograph session posted in a notable place.
And, of course, maybe the dumbest bit of all on an institutional level is that this is probably the best thing Gurley possibly could have done for his future. He’s already established himself as a dynamic running back and almost surely the best prospect at the position since Trent Richardson in 2012. Sure, maybe Gurley misses out on a Heisman Trophy by being suspended. Gurley also ensures he won’t give away millions of dollars in pro earnings by suffering a Marcus Lattimore–esque2 knee injury while shouldering a heavy workload for a school that won’t let him make $400 to sign his own name.
Who, it’s worth noting, still hasn’t taken a single snap in a game of any kind since his catastrophic knee injury in October 2012.
By not allowing players to declare for the draft until three years after graduating high school, the NFL has successfully incentivized suspensions, which keep a player healthy without creating serious concerns about his professional viability. In fact, the greediest thing Gurley probably did was not invite a half-dozen teammates with professional futures along for the signing session.
Of course, as Jay Bilas noted on Twitter, when this whole mess started, you could still buy a Todd Gurley jersey online. While this particular item has been discontinued, not all of them have. Somebody gets to make money off Todd Gurley memorabilia. Just not Todd Gurley.
Chargers (-7) over RAIDERS
Almost exactly one year ago, the Chargers made a trip to Oakland to play the Raiders in an extra-late 11:35 p.m. ET contest I referred to as “Football for Creeps.” Oakland blew out San Diego, with Terrelle Pryor throwing two first-quarter touchdowns for a 14-0 lead the Raiders never relinquished. They came away with a comfortable 27-17 win, leaving the Raiders and Chargers with identical 2-3 records. In fact, given that they had just beaten San Diego, Oakland actually held the tiebreaker for third place in the AFC West.
Since then, San Diego has gone 11-5 in the regular season, Philip Rivers has played like an MVP candidate, and the Chargers have won a playoff game. Since celebrating that win at 2 a.m. ET, the Raiders have gone 2-13, fired their head coach, and run so far away from the playoffs that they dragged the A’s down with them. Pryor has been benched, traded, and released, and the team he appears closest to signing with is the B.C. Lions.
Interim head coach Tony Sparano has come back from even deeper depths than 2-13. He was at the helm of the 2008 Dolphins as they battled back from a disastrous 1-15 campaign under Cam Cameron in 2007 to make the playoffs a year later. Granted, Sparano went 18-27 over the remainder of his Dolphins career before being fired, and he had Chad Pennington fall into his lap. Hey, Pennington is still a free agent! He can’t be that much worse than Matt McGloin.
Washington (+2.5) over CARDINALS
Speaking of iffy quarterbacks, you can probably make the case that likely Cardinals starter Logan Thomas would be the least-prepared quarterback to start a meaningful NFL game in recent memory. Drew Stanton remains in the league’s concussion protocol, while Carson Palmer’s shoulder nerve is yet to fully reawaken, which would leave Thomas in as the starter by default, with an emergency option — Dennis Dixon off the practice squad? Patrick Peterson? — waiting in the wings as a backup.
Thomas went 1-for-8 for 81 yards and a touchdown in relief of Stanton in last week’s loss to the Broncos, a stat line that doesn’t really reflect how he played. The one completion was an ill-advised throw into a window that didn’t exist, a rocket that Andre Ellington caught between two defenders who were in proper placement for an interception. Thomas’s receivers dropped two passes, he took two very panicked sacks, and his other incompletions appeared to be on another orbit from the receivers for which they were intended. It was a spectacularly weird performance.
It’s way too early for Thomas, who is the most inaccurate quarterback to come out of college and get drafted in recent memory. He completed just 55.6 percent of his passes at Virginia Tech, including a 56.6 percent mark in 2013 that ranked 13th out of 14 starting quarterbacks in the ACC. He averaged 7.2 yards per attempt, which was good for ninth in the conference. That wasn’t enough to keep Arizona from drafting him in the fourth round, but fourth-round picks have been relative disasters as rookie quarterbacks. Since 1990, fourth-rounders during their respective rookie seasons have completed 53.3 percent of their passes and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt while throwing way more interceptions (83) than touchdowns (55).
The Cardinals drafted Thomas because he has absurd arm strength and looks like a professional quarterback. He has very good receivers (last week aside) and an excellent quarterback guru at head coach, Bruce Arians, who will use that rocket arm to launch pass after pass downfield at Washington’s dismal secondary. If it was going to work for Thomas anywhere as a rookie, it would work in this matchup with these teammates and this head coach. But it’s hard to think of a passer who was more raw when he entered the NFL. At the very least, it should be wildly entertaining.
Ravens (-3) over BUCCANEERS
SEAHAWKS (-8.5) over Cowboys
BENGALS (-6.5) over Panthers
Football is a lot more fun for the Bengals with A.J. Green. Their star wideout is expected to miss Sunday’s game with a reaggravated turf toe, which would be Green’s first time out of the lineup since missing a game in his rookie season. Green went down with that knee injury in 2011 while leaping over double coverage for a spectacular touchdown catch. His absence didn’t do wonders for Andy Dalton, who threw five picks in seven quarters with Green on the sideline.
This is a deeper, more versatile Bengals team than that one, though, and they’re likely to be in a foul mood after getting embarrassed by the Patriots on national television. The Panthers have the league’s 27th-ranked defense per DVOA. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers have the fourth-best opposing QBR in the league (1.3) when they get pressure on the opposing passer, but their defense falls all the way to 22nd in QBR (88.5) when the quarterback isn’t bothered.
Dalton had serious problems with pass pressure in the past, but opposing teams are hurrying him on only 10.3 percent of his pass attempts this year, the second-lowest rate in football. If the Panthers get a rush on Dalton, it’s probably going to be a long day for the Bengals. If they don’t, well, Cincinnati might not miss Green that much after all.
Giants (+3) over EAGLES
You may have noticed that the Eagles have had a habit of scoring return touchdowns over the past few weeks. After picking up scores on a blocked punt and a fumble recovery against the Rams last week, Philadelphia now has seven return touchdowns in its first five games. That seems like a lot and you’re still probably underestimating it. Nobody else in the NFL has more than three.
In fact, the Eagles have more defensive and special teams touchdowns through five games than any other team in NFL history. Four teams were previously tied for the record with six, most recently the 2003 Chiefs, who were going through the absolute climax of Dante Hall hysteria. Most public schools in the K.C. area shut down as children insisted upon solely communicating by throwing up the X. It was a crazy time.
I’m not bringing this up as trivia; for a team that has won three of its four games by a touchdown or less (and stayed competitive in its sole loss), the return touchdowns have kept things afloat. There are 20 previous teams in NFL history that scored five return touchdowns or more in their first five games. The return touchdowns helped, as our return-happy teams won 76.0 percent of their first five games, for an average of 3.8 wins. Those teams produced an average of only 2.4 return touchdowns over the remainder of their respective seasons, though, while winning 66.0 percent of those games. That’s still good, of course, but it’s about a 1.5-win difference over the course of a full season.
In this case, the return touchdowns are masking a struggling Philadelphia offense. The Eagles lead the league in points scored per game, but take the return touchdowns out of every team’s totals — only include points scored by the offense — and Philadelphia falls to 18th. The Eagles are 22nd in offensive DVOA and would surely rank even worse with stronger opponent adjustments, having played the Jaguars, Rams, and Washington. The offensive line injuries have sapped the strength of the running game, and Nick Foles has struggled to throw downfield.
Will it all come back to bite them? In the long run, they can’t keep playing this way, because the return touchdowns are going to run out. Granted, the Giants aren’t exactly the sort of team to be parsimonious about giveaways; they’ve already fumbled away two kickoff returns this year, and even the good version of Eli Manning throws his fair share of interceptions. Unless LeSean McCoy finds traction, though, the Eagles might need another one of those return touchdowns to cover.
VIKINGS (-2) over Lions
Last week, a Lions fan with apparently undeserved access to laser pointers brought one into Ford Field and shined it at several Bills players, including quarterback Kyle Orton. Unfortunately, the joke was on him; Detroit kicker Alex Henery performed like he had a laser cannon pointed at his eyes, as the Lions missed three field goals before Dan Carpenter drilled a 58-yarder to win it in the final seconds. In a fit, the Detroit pointer then tweeted about how he was responsible for nearly blinding the players on the opposing team before deleting his tweets. The fan was caught Thursday and banned from Ford Field.
The laser-pointer disruption came despite security concerns that led the NFL to introduce a bag policy in 2013 that prevents fans from bringing in anything much larger than a hand-size clutch, unless it’s a clear three-gallon Ziploc bag or a conveniently team-official clear plastic bag available for purchase on the NFL’s website.
The rules exhibit little common sense and show a natural disregard for women, a subsection of the fan base whom the NFL keeps disenfranchising and insulting at all costs. Never mind that a guy could sneak in a laser pointer. Or a full-size box of cereal. The woman who wore jeans into the pool in Jacksonville last week wasn’t making a fashion choice. She probably just needed a place to put her stuff.
49ers (-3.5) over RAMS
In August, the NFL agreed to terms on a sponsorship deal with headphone maker/mall kiosk giant Bose, making it the “official sound” of the NFL. On Saturday, the league publicly reiterated the sponsorship’s terms, noting that players could not wear any competing headphones during pre- or postgame interviews until 90 minutes after the game had ended.
On Sunday, Colin Kaepernick, who had been in an endlessly overplayed commercial for Beats by Dre last year, wore a pink pair of Beats headphones to a postgame press conference. By Thursday, Kaepernick had been fined $10,000 by the league.
I don’t really care about headphones, but put that figure into context. Earlier in the week, the NFL fined Broncos tight end Julius Thomas $8,268 for his illegal chop block on Calais Campbell,3 who will miss the next three weeks with an injured MCL. It would have somehow been just a tiny bit worse for Thomas to bring a pair of unapproved headphones onto the field and smack Campbell with them.
According to Campbell, $8,268 is the league’s maximum fine for an illegal block by a first-time offender.
More distressing is how quick the league was to fine Kaepernick. It took no more than three days to find out what had happened and bill Kaepernick for offending a corporate sponsor. Never mind that it took the league 46 days to realize it should have suspended Ray Rice for more than two games. Or that it took Roger Goodell 11 days to hold a press conference after TMZ aired the second Rice video. It took NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson 23 days to decide on Josh Gordon’s appeal. Hell, I’m pretty sure it’s taken a couple of weeks to play out some of these Thursday Night Football games in their entirety.
Obviously, those are more complex issues, and I’m not suggesting that the league tell a sponsor to stick it. But for whatever talk we’ve heard from the NFL — mainly from Goodell during that infamous press conference — about the league becoming more transparent and self-aware about its various rulings and infractions, nothing about the Kaepernick fine feels any different from the arbitrary, opaque processes and fine schedules of the past. As has been the case for the past two months, it feels like Goodell and the owners he represents are again defiantly ignoring criticism.