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Your Comprehensive Week 3 NFL Picks

Chuck Pagano’s defense isn’t doing much, and the Bears are headed to Seattle on the shakiest possible ground. Also, Carson Palmer is going insane. All of this and more in your Week 3 picks!

Earlier today, I wrote about the playoff chances of the league’s nine teams that started 0-2; now, let’s get to the picks for this weekend. I took the Giants -3 last night, and while I’m trying to block out any memories of that brutally ugly football game, the box score tells me that the Giants won and covered. As usual, the lines come from the consensus Vegas sportsbook figures posted at VegasInsider.com. Home teams are listed in CAPS.

RAMS over Steelers (-1)
Antonio Brown’s five-catch, 50-yard streak has always been silly; not only is it an entirely arbitrary cutoff, but it undersells how great of a player he is. Even though they’re minimums, those figures add up to 80 catches for 800 yards. It’s the sort of streak that your basic starting wide receiver would aim to hit on a weekly basis. Brown is the best wideout in football: We can set our sights higher.

What would that look like? Well, let’s start with Brown posting 100 or more receiving yards in four straight games, stretching back to last season and including Pittsburgh’s playoff loss to Baltimore. That’s a pretty great start. The record for most consecutive 100-yard games since 1960, per Pro-Football-Reference.com’s essential Streak Finder, is eight. Calvin Johnson set that in 2012, and Demaryius Thomas came up just short with a seven-game streak last season. That’s a far more dignified streak for Brown, a genuine superstar. He should get a steady diet of screens to slow down the St. Louis pass rush on Sunday.

Buccaneers (+6.5) over TEXANS
I couldn’t understand why the Texans threw the ball 58 times last week with Ryan Mallett as their quarterback. Then I watched their first play from scrimmage and it made sense:

mallett1

I don’t think anybody would have blamed Bill O’Brien for just giving up and walking out if that was how his team executed the opening play. That’s not to say Mallett was good. He was 11-of-29 for 74 yards in the first half, and if anything, those numbers somehow inflate his performance. Mallett has such a strong arm that he can throw his way out of (and into) mistakes, but when he’s not zipping an out to an open receiver, he does stuff like this:

mallett2

The Texans are favored by 6.5 points.

Eagles (+2) over JETS
Through two weeks, teams have been comfortable dropping back into coverage and daring Sam Bradford to squeeze the ball between zones. Bradford has been blitzed on only 11.0 percent of his dropbacks, the second-lowest rate in the league; only Mallett has been blitzed less, which is the same sort of logic you apply when you try to stay a few car lengths away from student drivers. Bradford has been bad under any circumstances, but he’s been worse against those few blitzes; his 26.3 QBR against no rush falls to 15.1 when teams send the house. Todd Bowles has sent pressure 47.0 percent of the time through two weeks — why wouldn’t he do the same against a passer who has shown virtually no ability to make opponents pay with big plays?

PANTHERS (-3) over Saints
PANTHERS (-6.5) over Saints
The different lines reflect Vegas’s thinking based on Drew Brees’s availability. VegasInsider had -3 posted as the line before it was announced that Brees might not play; now that he’s been declared out of the game, we’ll go with the -6.5. Or we can just not care about the points altogether, which might be the better way to approach it.

Even if Brees had played, his bruised rotator cuff suggests the Saints would have been more likely to go with a heavier run approach than they typically have in years past. That was the messaging as they made moves this offseason, but despite their efforts, their rushing game has been awful this season. You’ve heard about the Eagles and how dreadful they’ve been; their running backs are getting hit after 1.39 yards, the second-worst rate in the league.

You can probably figure out who is below them: Sean Payton’s Saints, who have their backs taking contact 1.13 yards after receiving the football. And while it makes sense the Eagles would struggle to create running lanes after losing their two starting guards, that shouldn’t be the case in New Orleans, which added a Pro Bowl center in Max Unger as part of the Jimmy Graham trade and used its first-round pick on Stanford tackle Andrus Peat. The problem has instead been at left guard, where the Saints traded Ben Grubbs to the Chiefs to clear cap space. Replacement Tim Lelito has been a mess. Peat has played only five offensive snaps through two weeks, which might be a scarier sight; it’s hardly like the New Orleans line is playing well enough to keep him out of the lineup.

PATRIOTS (-13.5) over Jaguars
Jacksonville’s pass rush continues to improve. Last year, it posted the league’s second-best sack rate, but the Jags weren’t able to generate the sort of consistent pressure on non-sack plays that creates problems for quarterbacks. Their pressure rate of 22.8 percent was the fifth-worst in football. Through two games in 2015, though, they have been a force, bumping their pressure rate up to 32.1 percent. That’s the seventh-best figure in the league.

Their secondary is an issue, though, and if the pass rush doesn’t get home, that secondary gets exposed. And the easiest way to make sure the pass rush doesn’t get home is to throw the ball as quickly as possible. Tom Brady is very good at that, and he keeps getting his passes out quicker and quicker. ESPN has tracked the seconds before a pass is thrown going back to 2011; here’s Brady’s time before his average pass by year:

The lowest figure for a full season is 2.22 seconds, which Peyton Manning hit last year. The only guy who has gotten his passes out quicker than Brady is Matt McGloin, and it’s fair to say they’re making different passes; McGloin has also thrown the third-shortest average pass in the league, while Brady’s passes travel 7.8 yards in the air, right below the league average of 7.9. Some of this is a schematic choice — the Patriots didn’t want Brady holding the football against that Bills pass rush — but it’s clearly working for the Patriots. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them continue the quick throws against the Jags.

BROWNS (-3.5) over Raiders
As much as you might be disappointed to see Johnny Manziel replaced by the returning Josh McCown, you cannot possibly be as disappointed as Browns wideout Travis Benjamin, who had three receiving touchdowns of 50 yards or more with Manziel at the helm in two weeks. McCown has thrown three touchdowns of 50 yards or more … in 14 years. One of those was to Anquan Boldin in 2003, and the most recent was to Mike Evans, who was 10 years old when Boldin caught that bomb.

It seems unfair to suggest that McCown should lose his job because he suffered a concussion while trying to Elway into the end zone against the Jets in Week 1, but is there anyone who really thinks this Browns team is going anywhere with the journeyman backup at the helm? Mike Pettine didn’t bench McCown, but he’s now stuck in the trap that often comes when head coaches make a quarterback change early in the year; if the guy who was on the bench shows enough to suggest he’s better than the starter and you send him back to the sideline, you’re going to spend the rest of the year waiting for the moment when you put him back in. Manziel wasn’t great, but you don’t think that Browns fans are going to be chanting for him the moment McCown starts to struggle? Unless McCown rolls off a 2013 Bears stretch over the next few weeks, the Cleveland offense is just going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Home Favorite Lightning Round

VIKINGS (-2.5) over Chargers
RAVENS (-2.5) over Bengals
DOLPHINS (-3) over Bills
PACKERS (-6.5) over Chiefs

Colts (-3) over TITANS
As much as the Indianapolis offense has struggled this season, the Colts defense hasn’t exactly held up its end of the bargain. Indy has allowed 47 points over its first two games to offenses quarterbacked by Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Not great. The acknowledged problem has been injuries at cornerback, where Greg Toler and Darius Butler were already out in Week 2 before Vontae Davis went down with a concussion. The Jets had far too many free releases and were able to create separation with the combination of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker much more easily than they would have against the Colts’ regular starters.

The more subtle problem that’s come up as a result of those cornerback issues is that Chuck Pagano can’t blitz. He’s naturally terrified to leave those corners in man coverage, and that’s changing the way he operates. Last year, Pagano sent blitzes on 44.5 percent of opposing dropbacks, the second-highest rate in the league. This year, that figure has dropped to 27.1 percent, just below the league average of 29.0 percent. Indy’s pressure rate has dropped from 24.5 percent to 22.0 percent, and through two games, it has just one sack and two quarterback knockdowns. Rookie Henry Anderson, not Trent Cole or Robert Mathis, has been the team’s best pass-rusher. Pagano needs to get his cornerbacks healthy, and when they are, he needs to start sending blitzes to try to get the Colts defense right again.

Falcons (-1) over COWBOYS
As much as Brandon Weeden can lead a team, he’ll be leading the Cowboys out to face the 2-0 Falcons in Dallas this week. I think the Falcons will prevail, but if you’re a little skeptical of their 2-0 start, I can’t say I blame you. They’ve won their first two games by a combined six points; given that the minimum differential in this grouping is obviously two points, it’s fair to say the Falcons are one of the more narrow 2-0 teams in recent memory.

Because point differential matters, a team like Atlanta tends to be less impressive than 2-0 teams that blow out the competition. Since 1970, the 61 teams that started 2-0 with a point differential of 10 points or fewer (like the Falcons) promptly went 427-413-1 (.508) the rest of the way. They were average teams. The 54 teams that started 2-0 and blew out the opposition by a combined 40 points over those two games went 455-279-3 (.619) over the remainder of their seasons. The Falcons would happily take a 9-7 record after the last two seasons, which is where history suggests they’re eventually heading.

SEAHAWKS (-14.5) over Bears
You can use the Vegas line and the over/under set for a game to figure out what a team is expected to score in a given contest; it’s what is commonly referred to as a team total. As you might expect given that the Bears are heading into the Pacific Northwest with Jimmy Freaking Clausen as their quarterback, their team total is not very high. As 14.5-point underdogs in a game where the over/under is 43.5, we would expect the Bears to score 14.5 points.1


1.

To calculate team totals, subtract the line from the over/under and divide by two. That’s the underdog’s team total. Add back the line to get the favorite’s team total.

That’s not historically low — the 1992 Seahawks once had a team total of 8.75 points in a game against the Steelers — but in the modern era of scoring, it’s a pretty distressing figure. There were only three team totals in 2014 that were two touchdowns or fewer, two of which came against the Seahawks in consecutive weeks: the 49ers in Week 15 (13.5 points) and the Ryan Lindley–led Cardinals in Week 16 (10 points).

I was fully expecting teams on the low end like these Bears to outplay their expected team total; after all, it’s far easier to underestimate their chances and struggle to even imagine them scoring than it is to think about what often happens in reality, where teams score from short fields and throw in garbage-time touchdowns. So I went back and looked at all the teams with a team total of 14 points or fewer over the past five years. The implied totals suggested they would score an average of 13.1 points. In reality, those 44 teams have scored … 13.2 points. Goes to show what I know.

49ers (+6.5) over CARDINALS
The best two-game stretches of Carson Palmer’s career, as rated by Adjusted Yards Per Attempt:

Palmer has quietly been unreal through two weeks. He’s completing 64.3 percent of his passes despite throwing an average of 10.8 yards in the air; the only quarterback who tops him in both categories is Ben Roethlisberger. Palmer is throwing a touchdown once every eight pass attempts. He still hasn’t been sacked despite playing behind an offensive line that’s down two regular starters. And he’s averaging 8.8 yards per attempt, which doesn’t even take into account that he has generated four pass-interference calls for 120 yards through two weeks; the only other quarterback in the league over 50 yards is Aaron Rodgers, who has 86. Granted, Palmer played the Saints and Bears through two weeks, so he isn’t exactly playing brutal defenses, but those are MVP-caliber numbers. Pretty good for a guy the Raiders dumped to the Cardinals two years ago for what ended up amounting to draft capital worth the 184th pick in a typical draft.

Broncos (-3) over LIONS
It’s still very early, of course, but the Broncos have the league’s second-worst offensive DVOA through two weeks. They’ve played a pair of pretty good defenses in the Ravens and Chiefs, and DVOA doesn’t account for the quality of opposition this early in the season, so it’s fair to expect them to improve based on that alone, but this is still a rough start.

Peyton Manning’s pass-heavy efficiency is basically built to make DVOA happy, as much as a quarterback’s style can excite an Excel algorithm, so this is weird territory. His offenses in Indianapolis and Denver have finished in the top six in offensive DVOA 13 times in 16 seasons. Manning has had rough two-game stretches, but he has never operated an offense quite this bad. It’s always important to avoid overreacting, and Denver’s offense is probably going to get better, but Manning isn’t exactly getting any younger. It may be more likely the Broncos return to competency instead of the top of the charts. And competency might even be off the table.

LAST WEEK: 9-7
THIS WEEK SO FAR: 1-0
THIS SEASON: 20-12-1 (.621)