Week 2 Picks

Posted: 09/17/2017 by levcohen in Football

The four best quarterbacks in the NFL are facing off against each other today. Tom Brady’s Patriots travel to face Drew Brees’ Saints, while Aaron Rodgers and the Packers face Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta. I think it’s pretty hard to argue that anyone else is in the same league as those four, so this should be fun. There’s also the fact that all four defenses leave something to be desired. Last week was super low scoring, but I guarantee you that at least those two games will see their fair share of points. On to the picks.

Cleveland Browns (0-1, 1-0 against the spread) at Baltimore Ravens (1-0, 1-0):
Spread: Ravens favored by 7.5
Over/under: 39
My prediction: I was not particularly high on the Baltimore Ravens coming into the year. Then they destroyed the Bengals, a team I liked coming in, and I started to like the Ravens more. And then the Bengals failed to score a touchdown for the second straight week, and now I don’t know what to think. The Browns played well against the Steelers, but the Ravens have historically been very tough at home and this is not a good matchup for rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who held the ball for too long last week and now faces a team that had five sacks last week. Baltimore’s offense looks very vanilla, which could keep this game close, but I’m fairly confident that the Ravens will win the game. Ravens win 20-13.
Browns cover
Under

Buffalo Bills (1-0, 1-0) at Carolina Panthers (1-0, 1-0):
Spread: Panthers favored by 7
Over/under: 43
My prediction: I think the Bills are about to get a wakeup call. They dominated the Jets last week, as they won by nine points and were in control throughout the game. But that was the Jets, the laughingstock of the league. This is the Panthers, who at the very least have a tremendous defense. It’s going to be tough for Buffalo to put up points in Carolina because the offense just doesn’t have enough weapons. LeSean McCoy is going to get force-fed the ball, but the Panthers will be ready for him. Now, I’m not very confident in Carolina’s offense either (this could be a theme, as most games went under last week), but they have more weapons and are playing at home. Panthers win 27-14.
Panthers cover
Under

Arizona Cardinals (0-1, 0-1) at Indianapolis Colts (0-1, 0-1):
Spread: Cardinals favored by 7
Over/under: 44
My prediction: This is an atrocious game between two of the four or five worst teams of Week 1. There’s no question that the Colts are the worst team in football without Andrew Luck. They’re bad at everything, and that shouldn’t change much with Jacoby Brissett, who’s been on the team for less than two weeks, at quarterback. Even if Brissett is significantly better than Scott Tolzien, it’s impossible to pick the Colts to cover with any confidence. Then again, the Cardinals just lost David Johnson, the key to their offense, for a few months. #2 receiver John Brown is also out, and most importantly Carson Palmer looked horrendous last week. It might be a one week respite for Palmer and the Cardinals, but I think Arizona’s going to win this game handily. Cardinals win 30-17.
Cardinals cover
Over

Philadelphia Eagles (1-0, 1-0) at Kansas City Chiefs (1-0, 1-0):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 5.5
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: On the one hand, this is a clear “everyone overreacted to Kansas City’s Week 1 performance and they’re not that good” week. On the other hand, it’s hard for me to imagine a team without a running game coming into Arrowhead, stopping Justin Houston and the Chiefs’ pass rush, and playing efficient offense. It’s also hard for me to imagine a team that just lost its top cornerback slowing down Tyreek Hill. At the same time, this is a good matchup for Philly’s defense. Last week aside, Kansas City has far more success throwing short passes to the middle of the field than they do attacking cornerbacks with deep passes. I’m also excited to see how Alex Smith plays when he’s under pressure, as he undoubtedly will be given how strong and deep Philly’s pass rush is. The Chiefs should win this game, but I think it’ll be lower-scoring and closer than expected. Chiefs win 23-20.
Eagles cover
Under

Tennessee Titans (0-1, 0-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-0, 1-0):
Spread: Titans favored by 1
Over/under: 42
My prediction: If this game had been played in Week 1, the Titans would probably have been favored by at least five points. I think some correction was necessary, but this qualifies as overcorrection. I’m a big believer in the Jags’ defense, but I’m still not very fond of Blake Bortles or the offense. And Oakland was a really tough matchup for Tennessee, a team that is still the best all-around squad in its division. The Titans have the quarterback and weapons to handle Jacksonville’s defense better than Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson did. And they’ve been way better against the run than against the pass for a few years now. Stop Leonard Fournette and you stop Jacksonville. Titans win 23-17.
Titans cover
Under

New England Patriots (0-1, 0-1) at New Orleans Saints (0-1, 0-1):
Spread: Patriots favored by 6.5
Over/under: 57
My prediction: The Patriots will probably blow the Saints out of the water, but this is a ridiculous spread. Why are the Pats giving almost a touchdown on the road after their horror show in Week 1? I know the answer to that: we’ve seen this movie before, and the Patriots always bounce back in a big way after an embarrassing loss. But this time, things might be a little different because the defense looks hopeless. And playing against Drew Brees in the Superdome is still no easy task for a defense. New England’s offense should get everything it wants, but so, I think, should the Saints’ offense. I’m so down on both defenses that I’m going to pick this game to go over the monstrous 57 number. Patriots win 34-31.
Saints cover
Over

Minnesota Vikings (1-0, 1-0) at Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0, 0-1):
Spread: Steelers favored by 6.5
Over/under: 45
My prediction: I was down on the Steelers’ offense last week because I knew that they generally struggle on the road. I didn’t know that Le’Veon Bell would look so rusty in Week 1, but that didn’t help. I’m much higher on Pittsburgh this week. I know Minnesota’s defense is quite good, but I don’t think any defense in the world will be able to stop Big Ben and Pittsburgh when their offense is whirring. Bell’s going to be a lot better this week, Antonio Brown is Antonio Brown, and I expect Ben to hit Martavis Bryant deep at least once at home. On the other side, an underrated Steeler defense that took Deshone Kizer down five times faces an unproven offensive line (sure, they dominated the Saints, but that was the Saints) with a banged up quarterback (Sam Bradford’s been on the injury report with a knee injury). The Steelers should win by a couple of scores. Steelers win 31-17.
Steelers cover
Over

Chicago Bears (0-1, 1-0) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Spread: Bucs favored by 7
Over/under: 43
My prediction: We’re in uncharted territory here, because the Buccaneers are coming off of a Week 1 BYE. Will that help (they’ve had more time to rest and prepare for the Bears) or hurt (they’ll still be in preseason mode)? I guess we’ll see today. BYE week questions aside, Tampa’s clearly the better team. They have the much more dynamic passing game, with Jameis Winston throwing down the field to Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson while Mike Glennon attempts to dink and dunk his way down the field with a cast of misfits at receiver after top two targets Cameron Meredith and Kevin White were lost for the season. The defenses are about even, as Chicago’s D was very impressive against Atlanta last week, although that was at home. I expect a back-and-forth game, and I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach with Tampa because I’m not convinced that they’re as good as people think they are. Buccaneers win 21-17.
Bears cover
Under

Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Chargers (0-1, 0-0-1):*
Spread: Chargers favored by 3.5
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: And here’s the other team that had a Week 1 BYE. It’s Jay Cutler’s first game as a Dolphin, so the focus should be on him. Is Adam Gase really the Cutler whisperer? How will Cutler handle the pressure that the Chargers will likely put on him? Will Miami really have a run-first offense? The answer to that last question is probably yes, at least early on. Jay Ajayi is a powerful running back coming off a great season, but there are questions about how he can hold up with a full workload over a full season. He’s already on the injury report with knee soreness, and the knee was why he tumbled in the draft. It has no cartilage and is probably a ticking time bomb. Of course, that shouldn’t matter this week. Ajayi will get all of the carries he can handle. I know the Chargers closed the deficit at the end of the game last week, but they didn’t impress me against the Broncos. They’ll have to play better to win their home opener. I think the Chargers are the better team, but the fact that the Dolphins are better-rested (LA played on Monday night) and have a healthy Ajayi could be the difference. LA will be without top corner Jason Verrett. Dolphins win 27-23.
Dolphins cover
Over

New York Jets (0-1, 0-1) at Oakland Raiders (1-0, 1-0):
Spread: Raiders favored by 13.5
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: Yeah, not much to say about this one. The Raiders looked excellent in Week 1 and now go home to play the Jets. It’s Marshawn Lynch’s first game in Oakland, the city he grew up in. The Jets are listless offensively and not much defensively, with a run defense that’s eons worse than it was last year. A spread of 13.5 is very rich, but remember that the Bills were favored by 8 points against the Jets last week. I think it’s an accurate spread, but I’ll pick the Jets to cover because why not. Raiders win 26-14.
Jets cover
Under

Dallas Cowboys (1-0, 1-0) at Denver Broncos (1-0, 0-0-1):*
Spread: Cowboys favored by 2.5
Over/under: 43
My predictions: This is a tough, tough game for Dak Prescott and Dallas’s offense. It’s an offense that didn’t look great last week against the Giants. Ezekiel Elliott will obviously be a featured part of the offense, because he always is and because Denver’s run defense is far weaker than it’s pass defense. But Prescott wasn’t particularly sharp last week, and the Giants didn’t have that much trouble with Dallas’s offense. And Denver’s offense is significantly better than New York’s without Odell Beckham. It’s not great, but against the Chargers it was at least adequate. I don’t really understand why the Cowboys are road favorites here. They’re the better team, but Denver’s a tough place to play and Dallas will be without top corner Orlando Scandrick. I expect either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders to have a big game in a small upset win. Broncos win 24-20.
Broncos cover
Over

Washington Redskins (0-1, 0-1) at Los Angeles Rams (1-0, 1-0):*
Spread: Rams favored by 2.5
Over/under: 46
My prediction: On paper, this is a good matchup for the Rams. They get Aaron Donald back for a game against an offensive line that struggled against the Eagles. And their Todd Gurley-led offense gets a plush matchup against a team that couldn’t stop the run last year and only did so against Philly because the Eagles can’t run the football. But there are a few reasons I expect the Redskins to come into Los Angeles and beat the Rams. First of all, I don’t think Todd Gurley is good. And I don’t think the offense is good. In fact, I think it’s still one of the worst offenses in football. It’s a lot better than it was last season, but it was one of the worst offenses in recent memory last season. Additionally, Washington’s offense is a lot better than it showed last week against an underrated Eagles defense. Jamison Crowder and Terrelle Pryor are dangerous weapons. Jordan Reed is the second best tight end in the league. They just couldn’t show it last week because Kirk Cousins was really poor. I’m going to side with two years of evidence that Cousins is pretty good over one week of horrendous play. Redskins win 27-21.
Redskins cover
Over

San Francisco 49ers (0-1, 0-1) at Seattle Seahawks (0-1, 0-1):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 14
Over/under: 42
My prediction: How many times have we seen the Seahawks struggle on the road before coming home to hammer their next opponent? Let’s just look at last year. The Seahawks lost 9-3 in Los Angeles, then came home and beat the Niners by 19. They scored five points in Tampa and then came home to beat the Panthers by 33. They were destroyed at Green Bay and then beat the Rams by 21. The year before, it was the same thing. It’s actually becoming a tradition for the Seahawks to lose at Lambeau and then come home and dominate their next game. This’ll be the third straight season that happens, because the Seahawks are obviously going to destroy the 49ers. Seahawks win 35-10.
Seahawks cover
Over

Green Bay Packers (1-0, 1-0) at Atlanta Falcons (1-0, 0-1):*
Spread: Falcons favored by 3
Over/under: 56.5
My prediction: It’s a rematch of the 2016 NFC Championship Game, which the Falcons won 44-21. I’m pretty sure this game is going to have a different feel. LaDarius Gunter was the guy guarding Julio Jones last year — he just got released. Corners Demarious Randall and Quinten Rollins are healthy now, and the Packers dominated Seattle’s defense. They aren’t going to shut down the Falcons in Atlanta, but I’m positive that they’ll do a better job than they did last season. The real story here, though, is what happens when the Packers have the ball. I’m intrigued by Atlanta’s defense, but this is obviously as tough as it gets. If the Bears were able to move the ball against the Falcons, what do you think Aaron Rodgers will be able to do? My guess: a lot. It’s Atlanta’s first game in a new stadium, but the Packers are the better team and will show it tonight. Packers win 35-31.
Packers cover
Over

Detroit Lions (1-0, 1-0) at New York Giants (0-1, 0-1):
Spread: Giants favored by 3
Over/under: 42
My prediction: This isn’t a marquee Monday Night Football matchup, but it’s one I’m intrigued by nonetheless. It all hinges on Odell Beckham Jr. If OBJ plays, the Giants have a clear edge. If he doesn’t, I don’t think they have enough offense to keep up with the Lions. That’s not to say that the Lions will have a lot of offensive success, because I don’t think they will. New York’s defense is phenomenal, and Detroit’s offensive numbers against Arizona last week were a bit skewed by meaningless late TDs. It’s a talented offense, but the Giants have shut down better. I’m going to assume Beckham plays and pick the Giants to win 23-16.
Giants cover
Under

Upset picks:
Packers over Falcons
Redskins over Rams
Broncos over Cowboys
Dolphins over Chargers

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Week 1 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 09/14/2017 by levcohen in Football

Week 1 is in the books, and the biggest takeaway has to be the bizarre quarterback play we saw. The three best passer ratings came from Alex Smith (148.6), Sam Bradford (143), and Jared Goff (117.9). Smith and Bradford helped their teams hammer squads with more heralded quarterbacks (the Patriots and Saints respectively). Smith, Bradford, and Goff were all considered lower-tier starting QBs heading into the year, but they managed to combine for 1,020 yards, eight scores, and zero picks while completing 79% of their passes. I suspect that this says far more about the defenses these guys were playing — New England, New Orleans, and Indianapolis — than anything else. On the other end of the spectrum, Andy Dalton turned the ball over five times and was shut out, Tom Brady completed just 16 of 36 passes and didn’t throw a touchdown, Russell Wilson threw for just 158 yards and didn’t get into the end zone, Cam Newton completed just 56% of his attempts and threw for 171 yards, and even Aaron Rodgers struggled (7.4 yards per attempt, 1 TD, 1 pick). Please don’t read too much into the successes of Goff and company or the failures of Brady and company. It’s been one week. Here are some other takeaways I have from Week 1:

  • Don’t read too much into the defensive successes of Dallas or Green Bay in Week 1. A lot of people have been quick to call the Cowboys and Packers the clear NFC favorites after their opening week victories, with the reasoning that they proved that their defenses were good enough to support their strong offenses. It’s true that neither team gave up a touchdown, and it’s true that both looked clearly superior than their opposition. But the Packers shut down a Seattle offense that has traditionally struggled both on the road and to start the season (shame on me for forgetting this before I made my picks last week) and that has an offensive line that can’t block anyone. And the Giants, who Dallas held to three points, are an offensive horror show without Odell Beckham. Eli Manning couldn’t do anything, the Giants can’t run the ball even when they have Beckham stretching the field, and I think Alabama’s defense may have been able to hold the Giants to three points. Personnel-wise, these defenses are both still very flawed. I’m pretty sure we’ll see Green Bay’s flaws this week, as they head to Atlanta for a nightmare matchup. It might not be until Week 5 (when the Cowboys host the Packers) that Dallas’s defense gets a true test, but I think we’ll start seeing cracks this week, simply because the Cowboys aren’t playing the Beckham-less Giants at home again. The Packers and Cowboys look like good football teams again, but let’s not proclaim that they’re the best teams in the NFC just yet.
  • The Vikings are going to make some noise. It’s dangerous to read too much into the offense’s performance against the Saints’ defense, so I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll just say that the defense is as good as advertised and that the offensive line looks, at the very least, a little better than it was last year. Also, rookie running back Dalvin Cook is really good. I know it was against the Saints, but it’s not the stats (22 carries for 127 yards) that impressed me. It’s the way Cook looked, as he plays faster than his 40-time and is strong enough to break tackles. He could be the all-around stud at running back that the Vikings really missed last season. Minnesota plays in what looks like a really tough division — Green Bay is Green Bay, the Lions tore apart the Cardinals, and the Bears looked feisty against the Falcons — but I still think they’re a likely playoff team.
  • Speaking of Dalvin Cook, how about these rookie running backs?? The class of RBs was very well thought of heading into the draft, and for good reason. Leonard Fournette is one of the best pure runners in the NFL and could take just enough pressure off of Blake Bortles to send the Jaguars to the playoffs. Cook looked great. Christian McCaffery didn’t have a great first game, but it’s clear that the Panthers are featuring him and that he is a special player. Alvin Kamara is already New Orleans’s clear #2 back (sorry, AP) and Sean Payton has gushed about him. Kareem Hunt’s first game was ridiculous. Tarik Cohen had 113 total yards and a touchdown in his highlight-filled first game. We haven’t seen much of Joe Mixon yet, but he may have the most talent of any of these running backs. Even seventh round pick Chris Carson has been a revelation for Seattle. It’s downright ridiculous, and the teams who needed a running back and didn’t get any of them (I’m looking at you, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Denver, etc.) have to be shaking their heads.
  • The Titans are still my pick to win the AFC South. I know they looked rather listless in a loss to Oakland, but I mentioned before that game that this was a bad matchup for Tennessee and I stand by that. Plus, they play in the AFC South, a division whose other quarterbacks are Scott Tolzien (maybe Jacoby Brissett now), Blake Bortles, and Deshaun Watson (the Texans have made their 18th QB change in the last 54 games). The Colts are clearly terrible, the Texans may be terrible, and I’m thoroughly unconvinced by Jacksonville. I like the Titans to bounce back this week and to regain their status as favorites in the division.
  • Please don’t try to convince me that the Rams now have a chance to win the NFC West. It’s not going to happen. Sure, they demolished the Colts, but the Colts are the worst team in football and will be until Andrew Luck comes back. And yes, the Seahawks lost, but they’re often slow starters and their defense is the real deal. After a home game against Washington and a game in San Francisco, the Rams play the Cowboys and Seahawks. Let’s see how Jared Goff looks after that.

Last year, I went 154-100-2 straight up, 134-114-8 against the spread, and 135-116-5 on over/unders. I finished the season well (11-5 straight up and 12-4 against the spread and over/under in Week 17), then picked a 37-31 Pats win in the Super Bowl (the final score was 34-28, although I wish it had been closer to 28-3). How did I do in Week 1?

9-6 straight up
7-7-1 against the spread
8-6-1 over/under

My upset picks were 1-2 (losses by Seattle and, barely, the Chargers and a win by Oakland).

Best picks of the week:
Steelers 24, Browns 17… Actual result: Steelers 21, Browns 18
Bills 20, Jets 14… Actual result: Bills 21, Jets 12
Vikings 31, Saints 24… Actual result: Vikings 29, Saints 19

Worst picks of the week:
Bengals 26, Ravens 20… Actual result: Ravens 20, Bengals 0
Seahawks 26, Packers 23… Actual result: Packers 17, Seahawks 9
Cardinals 31, Lions 21… Actual result: Lions 35, Cardinals 23

Mediocre week all-around, which is about as much as I could have hoped for in Week 1.

Houston Texans (0-1, 0-1 against the spread) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-1, 0-1):
Spread: Bengals favored by 6
Over/under: 38
My prediction: Another Thursday Night Football matchup, another crappy game. That’s definitely the way it’s looking going in. These teams scored a combined seven points last week, as their offenses looked absolutely anemic. I’m much more worried about the Texans than I am about the Bengals. Their offensive line looks lost without left tackle Duane Brown, who’s holding out. The Jaguars sacked Tom Savage six times in the first half and Deshaun Watson four times in the second half. Next up is a Cincinnati defense that still has Geno Atkins, a terrifying matchup for a bad offensive line with just a few days to prepare. To make matters worse, starting linebacker Brian Cushing was suspended for 10 games for failing a drug test for the second time. And Houston’s top three tight ends are out with concussions. That’s not good news for Watson, who is going to throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins as much as possible simply because there’s just nobody else to target. The Bengals will try and probably succeed to shut down the run game and key in on Watson. I know they got slaughtered in Week 1, but that was more about the offense than the defense for the Bengals. This is not a good setup for Houston’s offense.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Cincy’s offense. Their line was a dumpster fire in Week 1, and I guess that’s what happens when you lose your two best linemen without doing anything to replace them. And yet.. I still can’t help but be bullish about the offense. Dalton’s performance was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as the stat line suggests. He still has weapons — A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, among others — and the Bengals still have what could turn into a terrific 1-2 combo in running backs Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon (Jeremy Hill, on the other hand, needs to take a seat). Offensive line aside, the pieces are there. Facing up against Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus is scary, so I’ll keep my expectations in check, but the Bengals should have enough to beat this Houston team. Bengals win 20-10.
Bengals cover
Under

Don’t Sleep on the Houston Astros

Posted: 09/13/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

In September, baseball tends to be temporarily forgotten as football ramps up and jockeying for MLB’s playoffs is pretty minimal. This September, thanks to two very notable teams, there’ve been a few more headlines than usual. Almost all of those national headlines have been about the Cleveland Indians and the Los Angeles Dodgers. There’s good reason for that, obviously. As of today, the Indians are tied for the record for most consecutive wins in baseball history at 21. Baseball’s been around for a long time, so that’s impressive. During the winning streak, they’ve trailed for four cumulative innings (out of 189). They have a +104 run differential, as they’ve scored 139 runs and given up 35. They’ve hit 40 homers, five more bombs than total runs allowed. Corey Kluber’s been incredible, and the entire rotation has been incredible. It’s an unbelievable streak, and one that has seemingly been lost on the people of Cleveland (today, on their record-tying day, they had just 29,000 fans, which is actually almost 5,000 more than they had yesterday, when Kluber was on the mound).

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are making headlines for the opposite reason. They started the season 91-36 and seemed to be well on their way to 110+ wins. Since then, they’re 2-16, and 0-15 in games not started by Clayton Kershaw. This, too, is an incredible stretch for a team that looked invincible. But everyone’s talking about Los Angeles and about Cleveland. I want to write about another excellent team, one that’s gone under the radar both because everyone’s focused on the Dodgers and Indians and because they’ve been in a prolonged stretch of mediocrity.

The Houston Astros entered the All-Star break 60-29. Since, they’re 27-28. Before they won 1-0 yesterday, they had been swept in a four game series in Oakland by a cumulative 26 runs. That pretty much sums up the way the last few months have gone for Houston. But I’m here to tell you that the Astros should be taken seriously as World Series contenders.

Astros fans were mad when the team didn’t make a single trade at the July 31st deadline. Heck, even the players weren’t thrilled. Ace Dallas Keuchel said that “disappointment [about the lack of a move] is a little bit of an understatement.” I’d imagine that Keuchel’s opinion was shared by a lot of other players in the clubhouse, because the Astros clearly needed something and didn’t get it at the July 31st deadline.

They did, however, eventually get the missing piece. When nobody was paying attention, as time ran out on August 31st (the last day a player can be added to the 40-man roster and then be eligible for the playoffs), the Astros nabbed Justin Verlander from the Tigers. Verlander had cleared waivers, which meant he was eligible for a trade after July 31st. A Verlander to Houston deal had always seemed reasonable, both because the Astros needed a starting pitcher and because the Tigers were obvious sellers. The Astros dealt a lot away to get Verlander — three prospects, including Franklin Perez, a top-50 guy. All three are now top-10 prospects for the Tigers — but it was a move they had to make. In his first two starts for the Astros, Verlander has looked like the missing piece. He’s given up one run in 14 innings in a pair of wins. He’s been flat out dominant since the end of July, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA in nine starts. He started slowly this season, but a return to form was always coming. He hasn’t lost velocity, and he has continued to strike batters out at an elite level. It seems safe to say that, at the very least, he’s solidified Houston’s likely playoff rotation.

A major reason that the Astros have struggled is that they — and their rotation especially — have been riddled with injuries all season long. Keuchel and Lance McCullers have both made just 20 starts. Collin McHugh has been out for most of the season and has started just nine times. That’s three-fourths of the likely playoff rotation, and the fourth guy has been on the team for less than two weeks. It’s not easy to win games when Mike Fiers (27 starts, 4.78 ERA) and Joe Musgrove (15, 6.12) are starting every fifth day. And the hitters haven’t avoided the injury bug. Starters Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, and George Springer have all hit the DL. And star shortstop Carlos Correa missed about six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb (the ‘Stros were 20-22 with Correa on the DL). Now, everyone’s healthy. McHugh and McCullers are getting maintenance days, but that’s just to keep them fresh for the playoffs. The Astros have just three players on the DL, and none were likely to make the playoff roster anyway.

So the Astros are healthy now, and their roster looks pretty darned stacked. This team leads baseball in runs scored for a reason. It’s the deepest and strongest lineup in baseball. Jose Altuve is the favorite to take home the AL MVP, as he’s hitting .349/.408/.561 with 23 homers and 31 steals. Correa and Springer both have OPSs north of .900. Springer’s slumped of late, but he’s a leadoff hitter with 31 homers and a .373 OBP. Pretty darn good. But this isn’t a three-man offense. 12 players have at least 200 plate appearances, and 10 have an OPS north of .750. The exceptions are Nori Aoki, who’s no longer on the team, and Carlos Beltran. Alex Bregman, the second overall pick in 2015, has the third most PAs on the team (behind Altuve and Springer) and is hitting .284/.354/.471 while playing good defense at third. Solid. First baseman Yuli Gurriel, who was signed from Cuba last year, is hitting .290/.322/.477, which is pretty good for a six-hole hitter. Reddick is hitting .312/.359/.481, and thanks to Houston’s exceptional depth he can now play almost exclusively against righties, against whom he’s hitting .311/.359/.506. McCann and Evan Gattis are platooning at catcher, and each player has an OPS north of .750. Jake Marisnick starts maybe three games a week, but he too has been great, slashing .240/.316/.493. And I haven’t even mentioned super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez, who has seen significant time at every infield position (barring catcher) and left field. Gonzalez is slashing .292/.365/.515, which means he’s been one of the best hitters on the team.

The starting pitching has long been the biggest concern, which is why the Verlander move was necessary. JV certainly solidifies the rotation, but the Astros will still have to rely on three pitchers who have been on and off the injury report this season. Keuchel was cruising before he got hurt but has a 5.02 ERA and a 4.86 FIP in his first nine post-injury starts. McCullers, too, was tremendous to start the season but has been shaky of late. He’s had two separate DL stints for lower back discomfort and has a 7.08 ERA in seven starts since he first hit the DL. And McHugh is out right now with a fingernail injury, and I’m not sure the Astros can or will trust him to start a playoff game, as his nine starts have totaled just 47.1 innings. Luckily, the ‘Stros have a solid fallback option in Charlie Morton, who’s been rock solid as a starter all year. And I do trust that Keuchel and Verlander will form an acceptable 1-2 combo in the playoffs. But the rotation is definitely the likeliest part of the team to hold them back in October.

I really like what I think is an underrated bullpen. It’s underrated because it hasn’t been that good as a whole, with a 4.47 ERA this season. But in the playoffs, you need just two or three guys who can be relied upon in high-leverage situations and another few who can serve as effective innings eaters if the starters run into trouble. Of Houston’s 13 relievers who have thrown at least 10 innings from the pen, just five have had an ERA lower than 4.00 (hence the team’s subpar overall bullpen ERA). Those five, along with Luke Gregerson, who’s been reliable in the past but has had a down year, will be the relievers who are called upon in the postseason. Ken Giles has a 2.59 ERA and 2.47 FIP as the closer. Chris Devenski can go multiple innings and has a career 2.36 ERA and .92 WHIP. Will Harris, who was injured earlier in the season, is healthy now and is a reliable setup man (3.05 ERA, .99 WHIP this year; 2.28 and .98 since the start of 2015). Brad Peacock, who has swung between the bullpen and rotation throughout the year, racks up strikeouts and has a 1.77 ERA when he’s coming from the bullpen. And Joe Musgrove, the guy I mentioned earlier who has a 6.12 ERA in 15 starts? Well, his stuff plays a lot better from the bullpen. In 18 relief appearances, he has a 1.38 ERA and has walked almost nobody. Harris and Giles are the classic eighth and ninth inning guys. Devenski is the closest thing the Astros have to Andrew Miller, at least workload and usage wise. And Peacock and Musgrove are converted starters who can work multiple innings of relief (Charlie Morton could also fit the bill, but I still think he may start a game or two in the playoffs).

Bottom Line: From top to bottom, the Astros clearly have a better roster than the Red Sox and have a lineup that’s superior to Cleveland’s. If Keuchel and McCullers can return to their early-season forms, this team has about as good of a chance to win it all as the Indians do. I can understand why you may be wary about the rotation; I am too. But it’s dangerous to sleep on a team with this much talent.

Week 1 Picks

Posted: 09/10/2017 by levcohen in Football

Week 1 needs no introduction. It’s the first week of the NFL season! All of the problems we have with the NFL — concussions, misconduct from players like Joe Mixon and Zeke Elliott, power-hoarding by commish Roger Goodell, etc. — are very real, but they all somehow mysteriously disappear at 1:00 EST today. There are eight early games, so it’ll be very easy for us to drown ourselves in football. Let’s do it.
BYE teams: Miami, Tampa Bay (game postponed due to Hurricane Irma)
*- upset pick

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills:
Spread: Bills favored by 8.5
Over/under: 40
My prediction: I’m actually pretty shocked that the Bills are giving this many points — even in the plushest spot imaginable for the home team. The Jets obviously stink, but I think the Bills stink too. And New York actually matches up pretty well with Buffalo in that their run defense ranked first in DVOA last year and was actually on pace to break records for a while. It won’t be as dominant this year, but it’s still the strongest part of this team. There’s a reason the Jets went 2-0 against Buffalo last year. If Buffalo isn’t able to run the ball, they have nothing. That’s especially true this year after the Bills discarded Sammy Watkins. Both of these teams are angling for the #1 pick, and I think this spread should be under a touchdown. I’ll take the Bills by a score of 20-14.
Jets cover
Under

Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears:
Spread: Falcons favored by 6.5
Over/under: 48.5
My prediction: Many people believe there’s nothing more dangerous than a heavy road favorite. I can understand that sentiment, but teams have actually done surprisingly well in those situations over the last two seasons, with winning records against the spread both years. So I’m not going to be scared away from picking a big road favorite to win big when I think the matchup is favorable. And this is a very favorable matchup for the Falcons. They won’t be bothered much by Chicago’s defense, and their own defense is given a nice first matchup in Mike Glennon and Chicago’s offense. Assuming the Falcons really are over their Super Bowl meltdown, I think the Falcons will win by a couple of scores, and I love that I’m getting 6.5 instead of 7. Falcons win 28-14.
Falcons cover
Under

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals:
Spread: Bengals favored by 3
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: AFC North battles between the Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers are almost always tight and are often decided by a field goal. Given that these two teams are pretty even talent-wise, the spread makes perfect sense. Cincy has actually had Baltimore’s number of late, winning six of seven overall and five straight at home (only last year by more than a score, though). I think this game hinges on whether the Bengals’ pass-rush can get pressure on Joe Flacco. If they can, they should win the game. If not, it’ll be a dog-fight, because the Bengals are shorthanded in the secondary and because Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace will cause them problems. I’m bullish about Cincinnati’s offense, though, so I’m going to take the Bengals by a score of 26-20.
Bengals cover
Over

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns:
Spread: Steelers favored by 9.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: The Steelers generally play a very different game on the road than they do at home. Including the playoffs, they hit the over on only three of 10 road games last season, and two of 10 in 2015. I don’t think people have quite adjusted to that yet, as this over/under feels just a smidge high. The biggest thing to watch in this game, of course, is how involved Le’Veon Bell is. Bell joined his team at camp on September 1, which gave him only a week to practice with the team before this game. I’m not worried about Bell’s knowledge of the playbook or his effectiveness, but I do fear that he could pull a hamstring or something after an abridged preseason. The second thing to watch is DeShone Kizer’s debut. It’s a tough spot for Kizer against a team that has historically given rookie QBs fits (although that was mostly when Dick Lebeau was the defensive coordinator). I don’t think he’ll be particularly effective, but we can learn a lot about his talent and makeup by how he responds to a likely deficit. Also, losing Myles Garrett stinks for Cleveland. Steelers win 24-17.
Browns cover
Under

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins:
Spread: Eagles favored by 1
Over/under: 48
My prediction: It annoys me that the Eagles are road favorites, and this would be a reasonable time to pick the home team if you think the teams are pretty even talent-wise. The Redskins actually got more love this preseason than the Eagles did, so I’m surprised by this spread. But I agree with the sharps in Vegas and like Philly in this game. Washington’s offense looked off this preseason, as Kirk Cousins surely misses leading receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Sure, adding Terrelle Pryor helps, and Pryor is perfectly capable of making some big plays in this game. But it takes a while for quarterbacks and receivers to build chemistry, and I don’t think Cousins and Pryor are there yet. The Redskins will still score some points, especially since they have (for now) a healthy Jordan Reed. The Eagles were the best team in the NFL against the tight end last year (they averaged just 29.2 yards), but Jordan Reed is going to be tough for anyone to stop. On the other side of the ball, this is will be an interesting test for Philly’s revamped offense. With Josh Norman likely to shadow Alshon Jeffery, Carson Wentz is going to have to lean on some of his other guys. This is where we see if Zach Ertz is ready to take the next step, if Torrey Smith can be effective deep, if Nelson Agholor’s improvements are real, and if rookie receiver Mack Hollins can make an instant impact. I think the Eagles will win the turnover battle thanks to an improved pass-rush, and they’ll win the game 28-24.
Eagles cover
Over

Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions:
Spread: Cardinals favored by 2.5
Over/under: 48.5
My prediction: This is a tough one. I don’t like the matchup for Detroit’s offense, which has probably been getting hyped up a little too much after Matthew Stafford was given a massive extension. I think it’ll be a good offense, but this is a brutal matchup against a defense that’s been one of the best in football for years. The Cardinals really get after the opposing quarterback, because they can blitz and still survive with single coverage and no safety help over the top. Patrick Peterson is a tremendous cover corner, and Justin Bethel isn’t too shabby himself. Tyrann Mathieu is healthy, and the defense will be boosted by the team’s first two picks in 2017, linebacker Haason Reddick and safety Budda Baker. Meanwhile, Detroit’s defense is going to be the worst unit on the field, and I expect Carson Palmer and David Johnson to take full advantage. Cardinals win 31-21.
Cardinals cover
Over

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans:
Spread: Texans favored by 5.5
Over/under: 39
My prediction: I said yesterday that I believe these two teams are pretty similar and that I was only predicting a better record for the Texans because they’ve proven that they can win with a bad quarterback before (three times in a row, in fact). This spread is a little too rich for me, though, because I love Jacksonville’s defense and think it will make a big impact today. Also, maybe Blake Bortles will surprise people? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’m also not ruling it out. And Leonard Fournette will have opportunities to tear apart a defense that was actually only 18th in run defense DVOA last year. I’ll pick the Texans to win, but only by a score of 23-20 (because I can’t bring myself to pick under 39).
Jaguars cover
Over

Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans:*
Spread: Titans favored by 3
Over/under: 51
My prediction: The public loves Oakland, with 62% of public bets on the Raiders. That’s not surprising given how much the Raiders have been talked up this preseason. But the sharps aren’t fooled, and this spread has actually been pushed from Oakland -1 to Tennessee -3. These teams played last year, and the Raiders won 17-10 in Tennessee in a game that was very atypical for Oakland last season. They shut down Marcus Mariota, rendering Tennessee’s success in the run game (DeMarco Murray had 16 carries for 114 yards and a score) moot. Derek Carr didn’t have his best game, but it didn’t matter. Vegas is expecting a much different game this year, as this is tied for the highest over/under of the week. Mariota has improved weapons, but this is still a run-first team that will try to run the Raiders into submission. For that to work, they’ll have to jump out to an early lead. Can their pass defense hold up against Oakland’s passing game? I’m not so sure. This is going to be a close game, and while I think Tennessee’s the better team, I also believe that the Raiders match up fairly well against them. For that reason, I’m picking the Raiders to win in a squeaker. Oakland wins 28-27.
Raiders cover
Over

Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams:
Spread: Rams favored by 4
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Rule number one in life is do not pick the Colts when Andrew Luck is out. Luck missed one game last year, and it was a 28-7 loss against the Steelers. Scott Tolzien threw for 205 yards and two picks in that one. Without Luck, the Colts’ offense is bad, and when the offense is bad, the defense’s struggles are magnified. Even the Rams should be able to capitalize on this matchup and win the game fairly easily. It’s a great spot for Todd Gurley and LA’s revamped offensive line. It’s unfortunate that Aaron Donald won’t play in this game, but the Rams’ defense is still good enough to make Scott Tolzien look like Scott Tolzien. Rams win 23-14.
Rams cover
Under

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers:*
Spread: Packers favored by 3
Over/under: 51
My prediction: This is clearly the game of the week, and it could decide who’s home in the NFC Championship Game. It’s that important, because these are probably the two best teams in the NFC right now. It’s probably stupid to bet against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau in Week 1, but I think so highly of Seattle that I’m going to do it anyway. The Seahawks’ defense will return to form, and it’ll start here. They won’t shut down Rodgers, but they’ll put pressure on him and dominate against the run. On the other side of the ball, Seattle will get anything it wants when Russell Wilson is protected. Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham will have room to work against Green Bay’s secondary, and Wilson will find them. Can the offensive line hold up? It probably won’t against good front sevens, but I’m not sure how good Green Bay’s is. This is going to be a rock fight between two great teams. If we assume that Green Bay’s offense and Seattle’s defense play to a draw, I think it’s pretty easy to pick Seattle’s offense to do enough against Green Bay’s defense to give the Seahawks the crucial road win. Seahawks win 26-23.
Seahawks cover
Under

Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers:
Spread: Panthers favored by 5
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: This is kind of a scary line, because it seems like Vegas is encouraging a lot of bets on Carolina by keeping the spread relatively low. The public has obliged, betting on the Panthers at a 79% clip. I like the Panthers, but I have a feeling this is going to be a close game. The Niners aren’t devoid of weapons, as Pierre Garcon is a good receiver and Carlos Hyde is an underrated running back. It’s still a pretty barren San Francisco team, which is why I’m fairly confident that the Panthers will win the game, but I’m going to trust my gut and say it’ll be a close one that may throw people off of Carolina’s scent. Panthers win 24-21.
Niners cover
Under

New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys:
Spread: Cowboys favored by 4
Over/under: 48
My prediction: Cowboys fans will be happy coming in, because they now know that Zeke Elliott will play for the entire season (yay). They will exit with shorter fingernails but smiles on their faces, because the Giants, who held the Cowboys to 26 cumulative points in two games last year (both New York wins) will again make life difficult for Dak Prescott but this time will fall short in Dallas on Sunday Night Football. These teams have played each other on Sunday night twice in a row, and both games have ended with the difference being one point. It’s going to be another close one, but I can’t pick the Giants to win because I’m not sure that Odell Beckham will be on the field and I’m certain that he won’t be 100%. New York’s defense is legit, but so is Dallas’s offense, especially now that Zeke will be on the field. This won’t be a huge Dak or Dez game, but I think even Dallas’s mediocre defense will do enough to slow down a Giants team without a healthy Beckham and without much of a run game. It’s hard to win on the road without your top weapon, especially if you have a one-dimensional offense. The Giants will learn that tonight. Cowboys win 21-20.
Giants cover
Under

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings:
Spread: Vikings favored by 3
Over/under: 48
My prediction: It’s the Adrian Peterson revenge game! More importantly, it’s strength against strength as Minnesota’s stacked defense faces Drew Brees and the always-good New Orleans offense. Who’s Brees going to throw to? With Brandin Cooks gone and Willie Snead suspended, that’s a good question. But I’m not too worried about Brees. He still has Michael Thomas, the team’s top receiver last year, and he has a knack for throwing guys open. This is a tough first matchup for him, but the Saints will put up points. I like the Vikings in this game, though, because I think their offense is a bit underrated at this point and believe it’ll be able to move the ball at will against New Orleans’s defense. Dalvin Cook is better than anything Minnesota had at running back last year, and Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are proven chain-movers at the very least. Sam Bradford isn’t the most exciting quarterback in the world, but he takes what’s given to him, and the Saints have been known to give a lot to quarterbacks over the past few years. Vikings win 31-24.
Vikings cover
Over

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos:*
Spread: Broncos favored by 3
Over/under: 43
My prediction: I predicted that the Chargers would win the AFC West and that the Broncos would finish last, so it would be really off brand for me to pick the Broncos to win this game. It’s a tough place to play, but Philip Rivers has never been scared of playing in Denver. I know that the Chargers are only 2-10 in their last 12 games against Denver, but they always put up at least 20 points at Mile High (well, 19 last year, but you get the point). 20 points might be enough given that Denver’s offense is, um, not the most explosive in the world. Chargers win 21-17.
Chargers cover
Under

Upset picks:
Chargers over Broncos
Seahawks over Packers
Raiders over Titans

I’m not going to do locks of the week this year, because I did so poorly on them last year that it seems kind of pointless.

AFC North and South Previews

Posted: 09/09/2017 by levcohen in Football

With the season starting tomorrow (I know it started Thursday, but I don’t think it can have really started until the first Sunday), I’ve run out of time for my division previews. This has happened before. Luckily, I already wrote about three of the eight teams in these two divisions. The Browns and Titans were two of my “over” teams, and the Colts were one of my “under” teams. So I’m previewing two divisions but really only five teams today. That’s doable. I’ll start with the AFC North,

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): The Steelers have to like what they saw on Thursday Night Football, because if New England’s decline is real (it probably isn’t), they’re the the new AFC favorites. Barring a significant injury, I have no doubt that Pittsburgh’s going to have an elite offense. The weapons Ben Roethlisberger has at his disposal are ridiculous. Antonio Brown is, at worst, the fourth best receiver in the NFL (I’d take him first but would listen to Julio Jones, Odell Beckham and A.J. Green arguments). He’s not tall (5’10”), but he’s the best route-runner in the NFL, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. In a down year last season, he posted 1,284 yards and 12 TDs. In the last four years, he’s averaged 120 catches for 1,579 yards and 11 scores. The Steelers also now have Martavis Bryant again. Bryant, who was suspended for the entire 2016 season for smoking weed, was by all accounts a beast this preseason. That’s not a surprise, because in 21 games he’s averaged 17.3 yards per catch and racked up 1,314 yards and 14 scores. He is big (6’4″), and he’s also fast (4.27 40-yard dash). He’s one of the most terrifying deep threats in the league, especially since teams won’t be able to consistently give safety help over the top against him (see: Brown, Antonio). Even scarier for the Steelers? The fact that they also have Le’Veon Bell, the best all-around running back in football. Despite missing four games last season, he ran for 1,268 yards and caught 75 balls for 616 yards, making him Pittsburgh’s second leading receiver. He can line up all over the field, and he can make anyone miss. He’s known for his unique running style, for the fact that it almost looks like he’s moving in slow motion as he waits for the hole to open up before exploding through that hole at the exact right moment. He’s a joy to watch and, I’m sure, a horror to play against. And guess what? The Steelers also have a great offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey is a great center. David DeCastro is an All-Pro guard, and Ramon Foster graded out even better (87.9). And Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert both graded out as well above-average tackles last season. The offense is going to be great. Heck, even backup running back James Connor, a third round pick this year, looks good. My one nitpick is that Ben Roethlisberger has been very shaky on the road over the last few years. That’s not great, but a few road stinkers aren’t going to keep the Steelers from winning this division easily.

The defense won’t, either. It has been solid over the last few years, finishing 11th in DVOA in 2015 and 11th again last season. It’ll be solid against this year, as it returns most of its most important players. Middle linebacker Ryan Shazier is back. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are back. Bud Dupree is back. All of those guys are in their primes. And first round pick T.J. Watt (brother of J.J.) looks like he’s going to be a pass-rushing force. It’s a good thing that the pass-rush is strong, because the secondary is probably the team’s weakest unit. There’s a reason they just signed Joe Haden, who’s nowhere near as good as he used to be. It’s hard for me to get super worried about the secondary, though, since the front seven is so good and since the offense is so good. It’s a lot easier to play defense when your offense is putting up points every possession. The Steelers will be just fine, and I think I may even be being a little bit conservative by giving them 11 wins. They have an easy schedule, they have the best skill-position players in football by far, and they have a solid defense. Smooth sailing ahead.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): The Bengals went 6-9-1 last year, the first time they were worse than 9-7 since 2010. But they were still a solid team, posting a +10 point differential. Say what you want about Marvin Lewis (he’s never won a playoff game despite being the head coach since 2003), but his teams are generally pretty good. I see more of the same coming this year for a team that returns most of its important players and has a really soft schedule. Andy Dalton is not a great quarterback, but he doesn’t deserve all of the criticism he gets. I actually think he’s pretty good. He also has better weapons this year than he did last season, when the Bengals couldn’t rebound from the losses of second and third receivers Marvin Jones (to the Lions) and Mohamed Sanu (to the Falcons) or the injuries to Tyler Eifert (played just eight games) and A.J. Green (10). Green and Eifert are healthy now, and they’re also joined by first and second round picks John Ross and Joe Mixon. Ross is the fastest player in football — he ran a 4.22 40. He’ll give the Bengals a deep threat across from Green, which should open the field up for the superstar receiver. And Mixon, character issues (and there are a lot of character issues) aside, is a supremely talented running back who gives the Bengals a third option out of the backfield along with plodder Jeremy Hill and pass-catcher Giovani Bernard. The fact that the Bengals finished 11th in offensive DVOA last year despite all the injuries and losses was impressive. They also lost two All-Pro caliber linemen after 2015 (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler) and didn’t really replace them. The line was a dumpster fire last year and remains a concern, but the hope is that 2015 first and second round picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher have improved enough to stabilize things a little bit.

I actually think the offense will be really good. I’m not so sure about the defense, which is very similar to the one that finished 17th in DVOA last season. Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones are both suspended to start the season (surprise, surprise). Geno Atkins is still an elite lineman, but he and the entire defensive line are aging. Atkins is 29, Carlos Dunlap is 28, Michael Johnson is 30, and Pat Sims is nearly 32. The Bengals have tried to shore up their depth at the position with Jordan Willis (third round pick), Chris Smith (acquired in a trade with the Jags), and Ryan Glasgow (fourth round pick), but I’m not sure it’ll be enough to give the starters the rest that they need. The linebacker group looks a lot worse without Burfict than it does with him, so I hope Burfict will find a way to stay on the field without being suspended. I’m skeptical. And the secondary is already shaken up, with both starting safeties likely to miss Week 1. I just don’t think the defense has much upside. We’ve seen it before, and it’s consistently declined over the last few years. It still has the personnel to be mediocre, and the Bengals will have a winning season, but I don’t see 11 or 12 win upside.

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): The recipe for success for this Ravens team is obvious. Joe Flacco needs to get and stay healthy behind a shaky (outside of Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda) line and must lead the offense to at least mediocrity. And the defense and special teams have to dominate. In short, they need to follow the path the Ravens’ Super Bowl team took. I think it’s possible. The special teams part of the equation is a given. Over the past five years, the Ravens have finished first, third, second, first, and fourth in ST DVOA. They have the best kicker in football (if not in football history) in Justin Tucker. They have good coverage teams. They don’t quite have the same return game Jacoby Jones once gave them, but they should be fine. The defense is also good, coming off of a year in which they finished sixth in DVOA. C.J. Mosley’s an All-Pro linebacker. Terrell Suggs still has the ability to make big plays. Jimmy Smith is a good corner, and the Eric Weddle-Tony Jefferson combination at safety is one of the best pairings in football. If anything, though, I think the defense probably played a bit better than it should have last year. As I’ve written before, defensive performances tend to oscillate a lot from year to year; for example, the Ravens finished 20th in DVOA in 2015 and sixth last year. I think a downturn is likely, as I just don’t think this defense matches up talent-wise with the cream of the crop (Giants, Seahawks, Broncos, Texans, Vikings) or even the second tier (Panthers, Eagles, Cardinals, Jaguars). It’ll be a mediocre defense.

The offense is vanilla. We know what Flacco, almost 33, is at this point: a big-armed quarterback who makes some throws that will awe you but is far too inconsistent to carry an offense and has gotten banged up over the last few years behind a shaky line. Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin lead a solid-but-unspectacular receiver group. The Ravens don’t have a reliable tight end, but they did add pass-catching running back Danny Woodhead, who should serve as a safety valve for Flacco. The run game, led by Terrance West, is uninspiring, and the season-ending knee injury to second-year RB Kenneth Dixon hurts. There’s little reason to think that the offense will take a step back, but there’s also little reason to expect their second above-average offensive season in the last five years. This feels like an 8-8 roster.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10): Again, I wrote about the Browns in the “over” post I linked to above. I don’t have much to add, except that I’m much less sure of this than I was when I wrote that, because Myles Garrett now has a high ankle sprain, which is a bummer and will really hurt Cleveland’s defense. Oh well. I’m sticking with more than 4.5 wins for Cleveland.

And the South…

1. Tennessee Titans (10-6): I wrote about the Titans in the “over” post I linked to above. I’m really interested to see what happens in the Oakland-Tennessee game tomorrow. It should be one of the best games of the day.

2. Houston Texans (8-8): A lot of people like the Texans to win this division. I don’t, largely because the offense is just so scary, and not in a good way. I know Brock Osweiler is gone, and I know a first round pick was spent on Deshaun Watson, but Watson isn’t this team’s starting quarterback — Tom Savage is. That worries me, both Tom Savage is not a good quarterback. We already know how this is going to go: Savage will start a few games, he won’t be great, and then Watson will come in. But while most people expect Watson to be an immediate upgrade, I’m not so sure. Rookie quarterbacks haven’t had great recent histories, and that’s especially true of rookie quarterbacks playing behind bad lines without good run games. Lamar Miller is a solid running back, but he was a bit of a disappointment in his first year in Houston. Coming off seasons of 5.1 and 4.5 yards per carry in Miami, he averaged just 4.0 yards per tote in his debut season in Houston. He seemed to wear down over time, which explains the selection of D’Onta Foreman in the third round of the draft. The problem is that the line isn’t good, and it’s tough for even good running backs to transcend a bad line against stacked boxes. Basically, defenses know they have to stop two things to shut down Houston’s offense: the run game and DeAndre Hopkins. After Hopkins was dominant in 2015, defenses got the best of him last year and may continue to do so as the Texans put out complete non-factors on the other side of the field (Will Fuller, the normal #2 receiver, broke his collarbone in preseason practice). The offense is going to be really bad again.

The defense, on the other hand, is one of the best in football. They finished ninth in DVOA last year without J.J. Watt. Watt is back now. Need I say more? Probably not, but I will anyway. I’m unsure of how Watt will hold up over the course of the season, because back injuries are tricky things. But the Texans have a few other good defensive players. They have three linebackers who were second-team All-Pro players last year: Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and Benardrick McKinney. Those three guys and stud corner A.J. Bouye (now a Jacksonville Jaguar) were the core of the defense last year. Losing Bouye hurts, but they have a ready-made replacement in Kevin Johnson, who was on the verge of being a star before getting hurt last year (his injury, in fact, was what catapulted Bouye to stardom). And Watt totally transforms the defense.

It might seem strange to predict that a 9-7 team that improved at QB (say what you want about Savage, but he’s better than Brock) and added J.J. Watt will regress, but it’s worth remembering that the Texans were unbelievably lucky to get to 9-7. Their -49 point differential was better than only the Jets’, Browns’, and Jags’ PDs last season. So 8-8 feels fair, if not a bit optimistic.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10): Poor Jacksonville. No matter how much you like Leonard Fournette, Allen Robinson, or the entire defense, it’s impossible to overlook the quarterback situation. So I will start with the quarterback situation, which is the worst in the league because not only is Blake Bortles a bad quarterback but his backup is neither young nor intriguing. He’s Chad Henne, a 32-year-old who hasn’t thrown a pass since 2014 and who has thrown more picks (63) than TDs (58) in his career. That’s bad. Bortles has seven career first quarter touchdowns and 29 career fourth quarter touchdowns. That’s not because he’s clutch but because he’s the king of garbage time. When the game’s close, it’s obvious that Bortles is bad at football. Last year, he made Allen Robinson, clearly a talented receiver, look like crap. He clearly has no confidence in himself, and it shows. Fournette, one of the most hyped running backs in a long time, will help the offense, but an offense can only be so good without a competent quarterback.

The reason I expect the Jags to improve from three to six wins is that I’m very bullish on the defense. This is a young defense that finished 12th in DVOA last year thanks largely to performances from rookies Jalen Ramsey (who already looks like one of the best corners in the league) and Yannick Ngakoue. Those two guys will be even better this year, as will second year linebacker Myles Jack. Paul Posluszny, at 32 the old guy on this defense, is still a very effective middle linebacker. Telvin Smith, now in his fourth season, is developing into a star at linebacker. But the biggest reason to love this defense this year is that it added three plus-plus pieces. I’ve already talked about Bouye, who posted an elite 90.7 PFF rating last year. Calais Campbell is a two time All-Pro who was a centerpiece of Arizona’s dominant defenses of the last few years. He’s 6’8″, has had at least five sacks in eight consecutive seasons, and is usually among the league leaders in stuffs. His PFF rating was 93.0 last year and has been above 85.0 six times in a row. He’s the definition of an elite defensive lineman. And safety Barry Church was quietly one of the keys to Dallas’s defensive success last year. His PFF rating was 85.9. That’s three elite defensive pieces added to an already-exciting young defense. I wouldn’t be shocked if this unit ends the year as one of the two or three best in football, even though the offense’s ineptitude will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense. The Texans and Jags are in similar situations, and I could just as easily have picked each team to go 7-9, but the Texans have had three straight winning seasons while the Jags have… not, so I decided to give Houston the benefit of the doubt.

4. Indianapolis Colts (5-11): I wrote about the Colts in the “under” post I linked to above. If Andrew Luck plays more than, say, 12 games, Indy will win more than five games. But we still don’t know how many games he’s going to miss, and I’m skeptical that he’ll be able to stay on the field for long without re-injuring himself. And without Luck, the Colts have nothing.

And it begins!! Patriots-Chiefs TNF

Posted: 09/07/2017 by levcohen in Football

Without further ado, the first game of the season…

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots:
Spread: Patriots favored by 9
Over/under: 48
My prediction: I’ll never forget the time that the Chiefs absolutely decimated the Patriots. It was Week 4 of the 2014 season, and it was a primetime game. By the time it was done, the Patriots had fallen to 2-2… in embarrassing fashion. The final score was 41-14. Tom Brady threw for 159 yards and two picks and was benched in the fourth quarter. Someone seriously asked Bill Belichick whether Jimmy Garoppolo would start the next game. Alex Smith averaged 9.5 yards per attempt and threw for three TDs and no picks, and Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis combined for 199 yards on the ground. It was a glorious night for all New England haters. Three years later, I see an exact repeat of that humiliation… Just kidding.

I want to think that the Chiefs have a chance in this game. They’re a good team, and they have the type of offense that can win the time of possession battle and keep the game close. But it’s really hard to pick against the Patriots at home in primetime in Week 1. We’ve seen a lot of super prepared and fired up Patriots teams, and the results haven’t been pretty for the opponents. The Chiefs struggled against tight ends last year, which isn’t necessarily the best thing in the world when you’re playing against Rob Gronkowski. If the Chiefs scheme to take Gronk out of the game, Brandin Cooks or Chris Hogan or Danny Amendola or James White or Dion Lewis or maybe even the running game will beat them. If this weren’t a Week 1 primetime game, I’d expect a run-heavy Patriots team, because that would be taking advantage of KC’s weakness against the run. But I expect Tom Brady and the Pats to try to make a statement in Week 1, and they’ll make that statement by ripping apart the Chiefs’ secondary. I don’t think it’ll be a blowout, because Kansas City’s offense is capable of shortening the game and putting up some points, but I have to pick the Pats to win and cover. 48 is a tough number, but I guess I’ll go with the over. Patriots win 31-20.
Patriots cover
Over

AFC West Preview

Posted: 09/07/2017 by levcohen in Football

I’d characterize the AFC West as the sleeper division. Aside from the Raiders, who have gotten a whole lot of hype, the division has three teams that I believe have a good chance of being good but haven’t garnered much discussion before the season. That’s the case for various reasons. The LA Chargers are coming off of a 5-11 season, the Denver Broncos have an uninspiring offense, and the Kansas City Chiefs are being considered as the same old Chiefs of the last few years (namely, a good regular season team with no chance of making noise in the playoffs). For those of us who aren’t super high on this division, this is set up to be a wide open division. Per Bovada, the Raiders are +160 favorites to win the division and the Chargers are +400 underdogs, with the Broncos and Chiefs in between. On paper, all four teams have a legitimate chance to win the division. I’ll admit that I feel that I have less of a feel for this division than I do for any other in football. That’s a bit of a surprise, because last year I had a pretty good feel for the division. But here’s my best guess at the way it turns out:

1. Los Angeles Chargers (10-6): Yup. When you have no idea what’s going to happen, why not pick the biggest upset? But only part of this is about shaking things up. There’s a lot to like about this Chargers roster. This was probably the most unlucky 5-11 team of all-time. Nothing went right for the Chargers last year, as all but two of their losses came by a single score. Key skill position players Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead were lost for the season in Weeks 1 and 2, top corner Jason Verrett went down a few weeks later, and starters Brandon Mebane and Manti Te’o joined him. It was the worst possible year the Chargers could have had considering the talent on their roster.

That talent is still very much there. I’ve always had a soft spot for Philip Rivers, an immensely talented quarterback who sometimes makes egregious decisions. Rivers slumped down the stretch last year, but I think that was mostly because he just didn’t have great weapons. This year, he does. Allen is the key to everything — since 2013, Rivers has a 70% completion percentage and has averaged 7.9 yards per attempt with Keenan on the field. #2 receiver Tyrell Williams broke out last year, Travis Benjamin is a great deep threat, and Dontrelle Inman is a reliable depth option. Then there’s the tight end duo of Hunter Henry, probably a future All-Pro tight end, and Antonio Gates, who’s still got a little bit left in his tank. The guy who could really improve the offense, of course, is first rounder Mike Williams, who’ll miss some time with a back injury but who should be back relatively early in the season. Williams is the type of big, dominant receiver who can transform an offense. When he comes back, Rivers may have the deepest stable of targets in the NFL. The addition of left tackle Russell Okung is huge, as the Chargers have had a revolving door at the position for years. It still isn’t a great line, but Okung elevates them to mediocrity. For Rivers and this offense, that’ll probably be enough.

It’s the defense that will make or break this football team. After finishing 28th in defensive DVOA in 2015, it rose all the way to seventh last year. Sounds great, right? Yes, but defenses (more so than offenses) can often have huge shifts in effectiveness from year to year. In other words, the previous season’s performance is less predictive of future performance for a defense than it is for an offense. Football Outsiders projects the Chargers to finish 25th in DVOA, which I think is very pessimistic. I really do think there’s a lot to like about the defense. Joey Bosa was already a dominant pass-rusher in his rookie year, when he had 10.5 sacks in 12 games. And Melvin Ingram isn’t too shabby as a defensive end himself (eight sacks, great all-around play). Middle linebacker Jatavis Brown proved to be a steal in the fifth round, making the All-Rookie team in his rookie year, leading the team in tackles, and showing tremendous promise. But the real strength of this defense is its cornerbacks. Casey Heyward was dominant in his first year with San Diego, finishing as a second team All-Pro and posting an 88.4 PFF rating. He was the steal of free agency. And it’s easy to forget that Verrett was one of the very best corners in the league before getting hurt last year. It’s been almost a full year since he tore his ACL now, so he should be fully healed. I have concerns about the run defense, but I’m pretty optimistic about this defense. It’s young, talented, and healthy. The Chargers have gotten such bad injury luck over the last few years that the good health probably won’t last long, but right now it really seems like the Chargers have a great chance to surprise people this season.

2. Oakland Raiders (9-7): I like the Raiders just fine. I think they’re likely to make the playoffs in a conference that drops off significantly after its top two teams. And I can understand why people think they’ll win this division with ease. They have a lot of top-end talent. Three years into his career, Derek Carr is already a star (rhyming accidentally). His broken leg derailed Oakland’s hopes of advancing deep into last year’s playoffs, but he’s had more than enough time to recover. Amari Cooper is a high-end wide receiver. The line is terrific and is populated by three high-end starters (left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Kelechi Osemele, center Rodney Hudson). Everyone loves Marshawn Lynch. Khalil Mack is as terrifying a defensive player as there is and has the ability to win games by himself. Remember his five sack game against the Broncos in 2015 in what turned out to be a 15-12 win? Yeah, the guy is good. But I think it’s a pretty shallow team. I have no concerns about the offense. When you have a good quarterback, a good line, a good running back, and two good receivers, there’s not much to be worried about. Sure, I’d like the Raiders to have a better tight end than Jared Cook (who I think is massively overrated) and better depth at receiver, but the offense is in good shape.

It’s the defense that may keep the Raiders from being an elite team. Aside from Mack, there’s not a single player on the defense I’m especially confident in. Bruce Irvin’s a good pass-rusher, but I don’t think he’s a real difference-maker. Previous struggles aside, I think Sean Smith’s a fine slot corner. But the Raiders are starting a rookie fifth rounder at middle linebacker, and their other linebacker in the nickel set had a 41.7 PFF rating last year. Neither Karl Joseph nor Reggie Nelson is a bad player, but I’m not confident that either is a good one, either, especially now that Nelson’s 34-years-old. And the defensive tackles are unproven and probably not particularly good.

This is a good football team, but it’s a good football team with a lot of holes. They went 12-4 last year, but they also only had a +31 point differential, third-best in the division alone. This is a tough division, and the other teams in it are going to capitalize on mistakes that Oakland’s defense will undoubtedly make. Any team with Carr, Cooper, Osemele, and Mack as its foundational pieces has a bright future, but I think this year may be a bit of a disappointment for the people with sky-high expectations.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7): Everything that’s worked for the Chiefs over the last few very successful years should again work for them. They’ve made some adjustments, of course, but the core of the team is at least as good as it has been in the past. I’d argue that it might be even better now that Tyreke Hill has had a full offseason and preseason as an integral part of the offense. Hill adds the juice that the Chiefs have needed for so long. He’s a true game-breaker, as he scored 12 all-purpose touchdowns despite touching the ball just 85 times last year. That number will go way up based on the way Hill performed down the stretch. We all know how bad Alex Smith is at throwing the ball down the field (and how much he hates doing it), but he doesn’t have to throw it deep for Hill to make a big play. Pairing Hill with Travis Kelce gives Kansas City two big play receiving options, which will ensure they won’t miss Jeremy Maclin all that much. I do think that Spencer Ware’s season-ending knee injury will hurt the running game a lot more than people think. I’m a big fan of Ware’s talent, and I’m not sure that rookie Kareem Hunt will be as good as people assume he will be. The offensive line is pretty good and running backs usually do just fine in Andy Reid offenses, but I’m relatively bearish on Hunt.

The defense worries me. It fell from sixth in DVOA in 2015 to 14th last year, and I expect its slide to continue, especially since the Chiefs have the toughest schedule in the division (extra games against Pittsburgh and at Houston). Derrick Johnson will turn 35 during the season, Eric Berry will turn 29, and Tamba Hali is already missing at least six games. I’m also not as high on first team All-Pro corner Marcus Peters as many people are. Peters makes plays (six picks), but he also is a sucker for a good double-move and gets burned more than a good corner should. It remains to be seen how good Terrance Mitchell is, but he’s an unproven corner who will likely get tested often, starting in Week 1 against the Patriots. And the run defense, which ranked 25th in DVOA last year, lost gap-plugger Dontari Poe and replaced him with Bennie Logan, who isn’t a proven run-stuffer. Much hinges on Justin Houston, who has had consecutive injury-plagued seasons. We’re now three years removed from his incredible 22-sack season. If I knew he’d get to half that number this season, I’d be a lot more confident in the Chiefs.

I don’t think this is going to happen, but I can see a scenario in which the defenses craters, Smith makes some big mistakes, and the Chiefs start out 1-4 or 2-5. Then the calls for Patrick Mahomes, the raw quarterback they took in the first round, will intensify and things will continue to fall apart. I won’t bet on that, but I’m keeping that worst-case scenario in mind and projecting a mild fall-off for the Chiefs, who won 12 games last year.

4. Denver Broncos (7-9): To put it bluntly, the problem with the Broncos is that they have no real upside. Or rather, their best-case scenario would be to repeat what they did last year. What they did last year with Trevor Siemian as their starting quarterback was pretty impressive. They went 9-7 and were unlucky to miss the playoffs. Predictably, they had one of the worst offenses in football, but they were the #1 defense in DVOA for the second consecutive season. If they do that again this year, they’ll probably end up right back at 9-7. But I think their defense might take a little step back this year, and I think that for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s hard to maintain that level of play for an extended period of time. The injury bug, regression, or something always comes to get you at some point. The second is that the Broncos lost Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, probably still the best DC in football. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that’ll make all the difference in the world, but it will have a marginal effect. The third is that the Broncos have already lost defensive end Shane Ray for the season. Ray was coming off of an eight-sack season and seemed ready to breakout in his third year. Without him, the Broncos are basically left with a one-man pass-rush. And while Von Miller is a hell of a player, one player does not a good pass-rush make. Just ask the Oakland Raiders. The fourth is that I expect some regression from Aqib Talib, who made first team All-Pro last year but who is now close to 32-years-old, dangerous territory for a cornerback. Per PFF, Talib had the best season of his career last year and it wasn’t close. I’m going to consider that an outlier for a player who’s played nine years. And fifth, the Broncos’ run defense was bad last year and is unimproved. Now, there are still plenty of reasons to believe that Denver’s defense will be very good. Chris Harris is probably the best corner in the league, Von Miller is one of the most dominant players in the NFL, and supporting players like Brandon Marshall, Talib, and Derek Wolfe are very good. But this isn’t a defense with a ridiculous amount of depth (like the 2015 Super Bowl team). One or two injuries might derail a defense that has very little margin for error given how bad the offense will likely be again.

Trevor Siemian is still the quarterback. He did about as well as anyone could have expected last year, which is to say not horrifically but still not very well. He had his moments, but at the end of the day he’s not the type of quarterback who’s going to lift everyone around him to superstardom. The backs and receivers are pretty much the same as they were last year — Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker… Jamaal Charles was an intriguing addition, as it’s hard to overlook the all-time leader in yards per carry (5.5). But Charles will be 31 by the end of the season and has surely seen his best and next best days. The Broncos are betting that an overhaul of the offensive line will improve the offense significantly. It’s true that the line was horrendous last year, but I don’t expect it to be significantly better this year. Garett Bolles, the team’s first round pick, will start at left tackle. Maybe he’ll be great, but most rookie tackles have their fair share of problems early on. And Menelik Watson, the right tackle, was a Raiders castoff for a reason. Sure, Oakland has had one of the best lines in football over the last few years, but it hasn’t been because of Watson. The guards and center (from left to right, Allen Barbre, Matt Paradis, and Ronald Leary) are more reliable, but it’s hard to survive having two shaky tackles.

To add insult to injury, the Broncos have the ninth-toughest schedule in football per Football Outsiders. That’s harder than both Oakland’s and LA’s slate. The defense will fall off just a tad, and the offense won’t make up for it. This’ll be Denver’s first losing season since 2010.