Let’s run through this week’s picks, which are secretly just a meaningless backdrop to preview the football weekend. Last night, I took the Broncos +3. The lines for this column are the consensus odds posted at VegasInsider.com. (Home teams in all caps.)
PANTHERS (-3) over Texans
We’re one week into 2015 and Bill O’Brien is already panicking. He already benched Brian Hoyer for Ryan Mallett, although he tried to keep the identity of his starting quarterback under wraps until Sunday. I’m not sure why he thought Ron Rivera was going to be up late at night not knowing whether to prepare for one of two quarterbacks who are almost identically mediocre, but this is the sort of weird baby-Belichick stuff that Greg Schiano used to do in Tampa Bay. It also seems silly to hear NFL people suggest that we absolutely need a four-week preseason when a quarterback gets benched after three bad quarters because his backup goes 8-for-13 in garbage time.
In Carolina, meanwhile, Rivera appears to be turning things over to Cam Newton and getting out of the way. Newton threw 31 passes and ran the ball 12 times1 on Sunday, while Carolina’s other running backs received a total of 21 carries. To be fair, after this Ted Ginn Jr. drop, I’m not sure I would have done anything but run the football against the Jaguars:
Technically 14 times, but two of those touches were kneel-downs.
The Panthers will likely be without star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who would miss his first professional game after suffering a concussion against Jacksonville. (The Texans will be missing their own star, left tackle Duane Brown, who is likely out with a thumb injury.) There’s also the small issue of starting Michael Oher across from J.J. Watt on passing downs, which could be a devastating mismatch. Watt had a quiet two-sack, three-knockdown, six-TFL performance last week against a banged-up Chiefs offensive line. He probably will not have an easier matchup this season in terms of creating havoc.
Buccaneers (+10) over SAINTS
It’s easy to laugh at the Bucs after last week’s embarrassing loss to the Titans and assume they’re going to keep playing poorly. And maybe they will. But it’s also worth remembering that they were blown out by 42 points against a similarly bad Falcons team in Week 3 last year and promptly went out and beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh the following week, 27-24. Doesn’t mean they’ll beat the Saints, but what happened last week doesn’t always recur the following week. As former Bucs lineman Stephen White put it in his excellent recap of what went wrong for Tampa Bay, no matter how bad [the Bucs] played, it still only counts as one loss. Right? That’s what the support group told me to say.
49ers (+6) over STEELERS
The early returns on the new-look 49ers defense are promising; in addition to whatever they did to make Teddy Bridgewater have flashbacks to his pro day, they held Adrian Peterson to 31 yards on 10 carries, with NaVorro Bowman making it through all but one defensive snap in his first competitive contest since the 2013 NFC Championship Game.
It seems like they should have a tough matchup with Pittsburgh after DeAngelo Williams ran for 127 yards on 21 carries in the season opener against New England, but I’m not so sure that wasn’t what the Patriots were planning. The Patriots lost interior lineman Dominique Easley to a hip injury early in that game and basically dared the Steelers to run the rest of the way, using 260-pound Rob Ninkovich and 252-pound rookie end Geneo Grissom as defensive tackles. The Patriots still struggled to contain on the edges, which Williams was able to take advantage of, but the 49ers are deeper along the defensive line and have at least one above-average run defender on the outside in Ahmad Brooks.
VIKINGS (-2.5) over Lions
Last year, during Detroit’s Week 1 blowout victory over the Giants, the MNF crew spent the entire game noting how Matthew Stafford looked like he was in the best shape of his life. While the Lions made an unexpected trip to the playoffs, Detroit improved by virtue of a dramatically upgraded defense and better luck in close games; Stafford’s rate statistics (60.3 percent completion percentage, 7.1 yards per attempt, 85.7 passer rating) were all slightly below his average from the previous three seasons combined. He was the same guy.
And then, this year, as I watch the third quarter of the Lions-Chargers opener, what do I hear? Why, that Matthew Stafford is in the best shape of his career! The announcers noted that Stafford was married in the offseason and looks leaner, which isn’t what happens to my friends after they get married, but maybe that’s just them. “This could be the year that turns into a monster year for Stafford,” the booth noted as he took a third-and-4 snap. Stafford then didn’t feel a rush from behind, was hit in his motion, and got intercepted. After coming back onto the field for the next possession, he threw a pass that lost 3 yards and then threw a brutally ugly pick down the sideline. Let’s do this again to Matthew Stafford in 2016.
Patriots (-1) over BILLS
It’s weird that people were asking Rex Ryan what he was going to do to stop Rob Gronkowski this week, as if he’s never coached against Gronk before. Here’s Gronkowski’s run against Ryan’s defenses during the latter’s time with the Jets:
The numbers are skewed by the fact that a third of these games came during Gronkowski’s rookie season of 2010, when he wasn’t the same player he’s been since. Since 2011, Gronkowski has averaged 6.2 catches for 72.5 yards and 0.8 touchdowns against Ryan’s Jets … and 5.2 catches for 77.5 yards and 0.9 touchdowns against the rest of the league.2
Even if you include 2010, Gronk’s average numbers against the Jets (4.8 catches, 58.4 yards, 0.6 touchdowns) are comparable to what he’s done against other NFL teams (4.6 catches, 68.8 yards, 0.9 touchdowns).
One thing worth noting is that Ryan never really had Darrelle Revis match up one-on-one against Gronkowski. Gronk wasn’t enough of a weapon to justify that attention in 2010, and as Gronkowski broke out in 2011, Ryan used Revis on Wes Welker. Revis tore his ACL before playing the Patriots in 2012 and was traded away afterward. Stephon Gilmore suggested this week that he wanted to cover Gronkowski one-on-one, and while Gilmore isn’t quite the player Revis was at his peak, he’s Ryan’s closest equivalent. My suspicion is that Ryan will mix things up with a variety of coverages, but at the end of the day, the best way to slow down Gronk is to get pressure on Tom Brady. The Bills shouldn’t have much trouble with that.
As fun as it is to figure out how Ryan might try to scheme against Gronk, I really wonder what Bill Belichick is going to dial up to counter Tyrod Taylor. I mentioned that Belichick basically dared the Steelers to run last week; the logical thing this week would be to head in the opposite direction, load up against the run, and dare the Bills to pass. That will be harder to do with Easley likely out with his hip injury, but with a week of Taylor on tape and a much stouter front seven than Indy, the Patriots should be far more difficult opposition for Buffalo’s new starting quarterback.
BEARS (+1.5) over Cardinals
With Andre Ellington out, Chris Johnson is likely to get the start and the bulk of the workload for the Cardinals at halfback this week. And sure, given that Johnson faded badly after signing his huge contract extension in Tennessee before struggling through a disappointing 2014 with the Jets, on just about any other team, it would be appropriate to expect very little out of the 29-year-old.
With Bruce Arians, though, all bets are off. This is the same coach who routinely makes treasure out of other people’s over-the-hill castoffs. The Cardinals have signed unwanted veterans like Karlos Dansby, Antonio Cromartie, and Tommy Kelly in years past and managed to turn them into above-average contributors. And I’m convinced that the only thing Arians likes more than Kangol hats is messing with Ellington fantasy owners. Couldn’t you see the Cardinals starting 7-1 with CJ2K revitalizing his career in the desert and earning a Sports Illustrated cover? Big-ticket free-agent guard Mike Iupati returned to practice this week, and while he’s still probably a week away from having a meaningful shot at playing, his return to the lineup will help create holes for whichever version of star running back from 2010 is suiting up for the Cardinals.
BROWNS (+1) over Titans
I was wildly impressed by what the Titans did last week, too, but let’s remember that they were three-point underdogs in Tampa. They have been favored on the road against a non-division opponent exactly twice in the last five seasons, and that was against teams starting Matt McGloin and Kellen Clemens. Even Josh McCown doesn’t belong on that list.
As we talked about on the podcast, hope is really fading that the Browns are ever going to get anything out of Barkevious Mingo, the sixth pick in the 2013 draft. He has been demoted out of the starting lineup for Scott Solomon, and when Solomon went down with a high ankle sprain on the opening series of Sunday’s loss to the Jets, the Browns didn’t even bother to go to Mingo, who played 13 snaps.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
And, just to get my feelings on record, Cleveland’s new jerseys are an abomination. Aesthetically, they look like goth Syracuse. Professionally, they are a mess; it’s far more difficult to break down Browns tape if only because it’s harder to actually see which jersey belongs to whom. They’re not the worst jerseys of 2015 if only because they didn’t resort to the Old English font like Louisville did:
I am seriously in love with the new system font in iOS 9. And in bad font news, there’s Louisville… pic.twitter.com/O2V5EpxxMm
— Will Lingo (@willingo) September 18, 2015
When Bobby Petrino leaves Louisville, he’s going to blame that font for forcing him to leave for a bigger job and it will be totally justified.
Chargers (+3) over BENGALS
Philip Rivers had his receivers do all the work last week. Throwing a steady stream of shallow crosses, screens, and quick hitches to Keenan Allen & Co., Rivers threw 42 passes that traveled an average of just 3.95 yards in the air. He did that once last year, when he averaged 3.86 air yards per throw — the seventh-worst performance in the NFL that season — in a 27-24 win over the Rams and their fearsome pass rush. The Bengals had one of the league’s worst pass rushes in 2014 and only managed to sack the lowly combination of Matt McGloin and Derek Carr twice in 46 dropbacks last week, so expect the Chargers to throw downfield more frequently in Week 2.
WASHINGTON (+3.5) over Rams
Speaking of Washington and that devastating front four from the Rams, Kirk Cousins is in exclusive company! He has thrown interceptions on 6.6 percent of the passes he’s thrown while being pressured since entering the league in 2012. The other guys on that list (minimum 30 attempts) above 6 percent: Matt Cassel (6.1 percent), Josh McCown (6.4 percent), John Skelton (6.5 percent), Matt McGloin (7.3 percent), and Blake Bortles (7.5 percent). There’s also this, from the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg:
Week two tickets. Guess which one is Washington. pic.twitter.com/r5SKMQ19zw
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) September 15, 2015
The good news is that tickets have fallen even further in the meantime, down to $11 at the time of writing. If you’re an NFC East fan, you could opt for one ticket to the Cowboys-Eagles game in Philly on Sunday or get 21 tickets to the Washington game for the same price.
Falcons (+2.5) over GIANTS
As much as it seems painful that the Giants blew that nearly insurmountable lead to the Cowboys in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t like they played particularly well. They only made it to 26 points by virtue of a fumble return for a touchdown and a pair of tipped interception returns that left them with incredible field position. The Giants badly struggled to move the ball against a Dallas defense that is hardly dominant, and while the Falcons were easily picked apart by the Philadelphia offense once their pass rush slowed down, there’s no guarantee that the Giants will be able to slow anybody’s pass rush in any way this season. In Desmond Trufant, the Falcons are also one of the few teams that have a cornerback who can stand up to Odell Beckham Jr.; let’s just say that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be more of a question mark against Julio Jones and leave it at that.
Ravens (-6) over RAIDERS
Baltimore stayed on the West Coast during its season-opening road trip, making its way to San Jose for practices between games against the Broncos and Raiders. Every team should do stuff like this. In fact, there should be designated NFL outposts on either coast that teams should be able to use like rest stops, and about 90 percent of this idea is for the stories about teams trashing the facilities to anger the next team about to use them. If the Steelers were going to head to the same facility the Ravens are at next week, wouldn’t it be great to hear they sliced up every mattress and rubbed IcyHot all over the toilet seats? The NFL needs more pranks is what I’m saying.
And as our weekly Steve Smith Sr. watch rolls on, this could be an eruption week. Smith is unquestionably pissed after dropping what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass on Baltimore’s final series against the Broncos last week, just one play before Joe Flacco’s game-ending interception. And while I don’t think the Raiders have specifically slighted Smith, they are going to be missing both of their starting safeties, with Nate Allen placed on short-term injured reserve and Charles Woodson likely out with a dislocated shoulder. Oakland is going to start Taylor Mays, who was cut at the end of camp and didn’t catch on anywhere, alongside Keenan Lambert, who was acquired off waivers from the Seahawks last week. No way this can fail!
JAGUARS (+6) over Dolphins
Blake Bortles fired a shot at (perhaps hypothetical) Jags fans who had taken issue with the team’s offensive play calling this week. In comparing the team’s fans’ knowledge of play calling and play selection to that of offensive coordinator Greg Olson, Bortles said, “It’s like a kindergartner saying something to a college kid.”
Beyond the fact that it’s generally a bad idea to criticize the hometown fans, there’s little reason for Jags fans to pay truth to power. Jacksonville has finished 28th or worse in offensive DVOA each of the last four seasons. The last time the Jags finished higher than 14th in offensive DVOA was 2007, when Bortles was in 10th grade. It’s perhaps unfair to target Olson, who just finished his first game as the team’s play caller, but this is the same organization that has tried to foist Blaine Gabbert and Toby Gerhart as meaningful offensive weapons over that time frame. You can forgive Jaguars fans for thinking they might know a little more about offense than the people in the building do.
As for Bortles, the play calling is still designed in part to hide his limitations as a passer. After excelling in the preseason as a rookie and then putting up dismal numbers in the regular season, Bortles was again brilliant this August and got off to a rocky start against the Panthers. He threw an ugly pick-six to Josh Norman that ended up swinging the game, and while a second late interception should have been whistled back for illegal hands to the face, Bortles still looks erratic. He finished the game by facing a fourth-and-15 from the Jacksonville 40-yard line down 11 points in the final seconds and throwing a 4-yard checkdown to Bryan Walters in lieu of even attempting a Hail Mary.3 Both coaches and players have forgotten more about football than fans (or writers) will ever know, but that doesn’t shield them from criticism or justify their decisions solely on the basis of their titles.
EAGLES (-5) over Cowboys
I’m guessing the argument there is probably going to be that Bortles got wideout Rashad Greene injured earlier on the drive by laying him out with a pass that led him into a big hit, but that’s also not a sign that Bortles is improving his situational awareness.
The Eagles feel like a very bad matchup for the Cowboys as presently constructed. As we saw against Atlanta, the best way to stop Philly is going to be to generate a steady pass rush and force Sam Bradford into rushing his throws. The Cowboys may not have that rush, given that they lost Randy Gregory to a high-ankle sprain and won’t have Greg Hardy back for a few more weeks. The Cowboys are also built around their dominant offensive line, but Philadelphia is one of the few front sevens deep and athletic enough to match up with Dallas’s front five. And while the obvious equalizer for the Cowboys last year was Dez Bryant and his evisceration of Bradley Fletcher, Bryant is out with a broken foot. Things will be different when the Cowboys host Philly in Week 9, but right now, the needle favors the Eagles.
Seahawks (+3.5) over PACKERS
If you remember the game these teams played in last year’s season opener, you’ll recall that the Packers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a sprained MCL. The Packers were in the middle of a second-quarter drive during that injury, one that ended with a short field goal to tie the game at 10. By the time the Packers scored again, the Seahawks were leading 29-10 in the fourth quarter. Green Bay’s offense began to struggle mightily, and much of the reason why was the play of Bulaga replacement Derek Sherrod, who would be cut in November. The Seahawks were simply able to abuse Sherrod in pass protection.
Bulaga missed one game with his sprained MCL before returning, the only game all year missed by one of Green Bay’s five linemen. And while he was back for that fateful playoff encounter in Seattle, Bulaga won’t be in the lineup Sunday after re-spraining his MCL in practice. He’ll be replaced by Don Barclay; expect the Seahawks to go after the 26-year-old utility lineman with their best pass-rushers.
COLTS (-7) over Jets
Let’s finish up with the Jets, who came out of Week 1 with a 31-10 win over the Browns that didn’t really reflect the level of play between the teams. That win saw Cleveland’s quarterback get injured at the end of the opening possession and fumble into the end zone to turn a touchdown into a touchback. Tashaun Gipson intercepted a pass and was miraculously stripped by Brandon Marshall, who immediately recovered it. There were five fumbles in the Jets-Browns game, and the Jets recovered all five. That includes all four of Cleveland’s fumbles and this beauty, which Ryan Fitzpatrick somehow managed to grab ahead of multiple Cleveland linebackers who would have walked in for a touchdown:
If the Jets recover every single one of the fumbles in their games and knock out the starting quarterback each week, they’re going to be a great football team. Until then, there’s Andrew Luck.
Last Week: 10-5-1
Last Night: 1-0
Season to Date: 11-5-1