Archive for September, 2017

Week 3 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 09/28/2017 by levcohen in Football

The NFL is weird. It’s weird over the course of a full season, and of course it’s even weirder during any given three week period. I think sometimes we overestimate the difference in quality between the best teams and the worst ones, and that contributes to the weirdness. For example: the New England Patriots are obviously better than the Houston Texans, and it is surprising that they almost lost at home against Houston. But how much better are they? After the first couple of weeks, when the majority of games were uninteresting and lopsided, I would have said wayyy better. But after a week in which there were a lot of close games and upsets with exciting finishes, I’m not so sure. Some weird facts: the Colts, who have been widely regarded as the worst team in football without their quarterback, would be 2-1 if not for some coaching blunders in their second game. The Seahawks could be 0-3, and the Packers could be 1-2. The Falcons are 3-0 right now, but they are two plays away from being 1-2, as they made goal line stands at the end of their first and third games. It’s important to remember that if a team’s record at the end of the season doesn’t tell you everything about its quality, then three games worth of wins and losses certainly don’t tell us much. Here are some takeaways from Week 3:

  • The Falcons are much better than the Lions. I know that the score was 30-26, and that the Lions had a golden (or should I say Golden) chance to win the game — Golden Tate appeared to have won it with a touchdown catch with eight seconds left but was ruled down inside the one after a review, thus ending the game. But aside from three turnovers, two of which were unlucky interceptions, the Falcons dominated the game. The Lions had a pick-six and another long interception return, but the Falcons averaged 6.6 yards per play compared to just 4.9 for Detroit. The offense isn’t humming like it did to end last year, but it’s still plenty good enough to support an improved defense. Atlanta now has consecutive home games before a trip to New England for a game that everyone has circled on their calendars.
  • Outside of Atlanta, the top of the NFC looks super weak right now. The Packers struggled to beat the winless Bengals at home and have been riddled by injuries to both their offensive and defensive lines. Aaron Rodgers is basically pressured every snap, and while he still managed to make things happen because he’s Aaron Rodgers, you wonder how long he can last given the dumpster fire that is the o-line right now. The Seahawks have offensive line problems of their own and are 1-2. The Cowboys took care of business in Arizona but were far from dominant. The Panthers can’t do anything on offense. Some people were talking up Tampa Bay last week, but so much for that. Who’s the second-best team in the NFC? If Sam Bradford were healthy, I’d say the Vikings. But he isn’t, and Case Keenum’s not very good, Week 3 performance aside. I’d still probably go with the Packers, but I’m still bullish on the Seahawks longterm. Oh, and I’m not on the Rams bandwagon.
  • It’s telling that I just got through that entire paragraph about the top of the NFC without mentioning the Washington Redskins, who just smoked the Raiders 27-10. The score doesn’t do Washington’s performance justice: they held Oakland to seven first downs, out-gained them 472-128, and kept them from succeeding on a single third down (0-11). It was one of the more impressive wins of the 2017 season thus far, perhaps second only to Jacksonville’s utter demolition of the Ravens earlier Sunday. This came after the Redskins went into Los Angeles and beat the Rams, so I’d imagine that a lot of people who are on the Rams bandwagon are also on the Redskins bandwagon. I’m on neither, because I don’t believe that the defense is as good as it was against Oakland. Even most good offenses have stinkers on the road, and that was a Raiders stinker. I’m not convinced that Oakland is that great, either. So wins over Oakland and Los Angeles don’t mean as much to me as they do to others. I still see a mediocre defense and an offense that’s struggling to get over the losses of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency.
  • The Chiefs are clear top dogs through three weeks and are being rated appropriately. I have to say that this team has really impressed me. Alex Smith was never going to keep putting up the numbers he managed in Week 1, but he’s been efficient and solid. Having Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce doesn’t hurt, either. The fact that they have a solid offensive line shouldn’t stand out but does given how much other o-lines have struggled thus far. I have to say that I’m still not convinced KC is going to win its division. Oakland and Denver are tough opponents, and regression must be coming for Kareem Hunt. Who’s going to be the first team to slow him down and force Smith to make plays? It could be the Redskins this Monday Night, as Washington has been rock solid against the run thus far. The Chiefs have a brutal upcoming schedule: Washington, @ Houston, Pittsburgh, @ Oakland, Denver, @ Dallas. If they go 4-2 or better in that stretch, I’ll be convinced that they’re real Super Bowl contenders.
  • Minnesota’s receivers have gone under the radar, but Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are just flat out good. They really stand out because they’re just always open; why do you think Case Keenum had the best game of his career on Sunday? You can see how much adding Dalvin Cook and correcting a horrific offensive line has opened up the offense. Diggs is on pace for 91 catches, 1,563 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Thielen is on pace for 101/1,595/0. They’ll calm down a little bit, obviously, but this offense clearly has the chance to be well above-average this season as long as they have a healthy Sam Bradford. Pair that with Minnesota’s defense and you have a potential Super Bowl contender.

It was a weird week, one in which most predictions were proven wrong. It was a record-breaking week for Vegas Sportsbooks, as many made more of a profit than they ever had in a single week. It was also a bad week for me, but it could have been worse.

9-7 straight up… 31-16 for the season
8-8 against the spread… 20-26-1
7-8-1 on over/under… 24-21-2

My upset picks were 3-2, with the Cardinals and Niners losing but Minnesota, New Orleans, and Buffalo picking up the slack. I’m 7-5 on those for the season.

Chicago Bears (1-2, 2-1 against the spread) at Green Bay Packers (2-1, 1-2):
Spread: Packers favored by 7.5
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: The Bears are feisty at home. That’s been proven in their first two home games against Atlanta (a near-win) and Pittsburgh (an overtime win). In their first road game, though, they were blown out by the Buccaneers. It’s hard to feel confident about a team that’s going into Lambeau with Mike Glennon as their starting quarterback. The Bears are going to rely heavily upon running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, as the pair has handled nearly 70% of Chicago’s total touches thus far this season. It’ll surely be a conservative game plan for Chicago, one that will keep the total scoring in this game down. How has Green Bay done against runs and passes to running backs thus far this season? Well, they rank 22nd in DVOA against the run and 31st in pass defense against running backs, but that’s a super small sample size and last year they were decent against running backs. It’s also likely that Howard, Chicago’s bell-cow, will still be banged up. He had to come out of the Pittsburgh game multiple times because of his shoulder, and there’s no way it’s been healed in four days. The Bears’ offense is probably going to be capped around 20 points, which is definitely going to make it hard for them to win the game outright.

On the other side of the ball, the Packers will again be without both starting tackles. That nearly led to an upset loss against the Bengals, but Green Bay should be helped by the fact that the Bears haven’t been particularly good at getting to the quarterback thus far. They’ll also be aided by the return of Randall Cobb, who’s probably their second best receiver and gives them the quick-change-of-direction element they lacked last week. But I still don’t think we’re likely to see an offensive explosion from the Packers. I think they, too, will probably be conservative as they try to protect their quarterback. Rodgers and the offense will do enough to win the game, but the Bears will keep it tight. Packers win 20-16.
Bears cover
Under

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I’ve long thought that professional athletes should be more outspoken about and involved in politics. I understand why they generally shy away from it, but few people have the type of platform that athletes have. They can reach a diverse and broad group of people, but all too often they’ve shied away from harnessing all of that power to fight for social justice, instead choosing to “stick to sports.” I’m not surprised that that has begun to change under President Trump. There were plenty of problems with society before Trump and there will be after him, but it’s a lot easier to fight for justice when the president is blatantly prejudiced and has aligned himself with alt-righters and white supremacists (tuh-MAY-toh, tuh-MAH-toh… that doesn’t work quite as well in print). So while I’m pleased by the (probably temporary) breakdown of “stick to sports,” I’m not shocked by it. What shocks me is that the NFL is leading the charge.

The NFL is a very conservative league. That’s partly because players have a lot of money, but it has more to do with the fact that many players come from smaller towns and/or rural areas. Per WSJ, one in four Americans come from cities with fewer than 50,000 people, but among NFL players that balloons to nearly 50% (the NBA, meanwhile, is 28%, while even MLB is only 38%). And it’s a decidedly southern league. About 40% of NFL players come from the South, with Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc. all being vastly overrepresented in the league. That’s more than twice as many as come from the Northeast. NFL locker rooms are also incredibly fragile. It’s not just that NFL players generally don’t make public statements; they also rarely talk about politics in private. I don’t believe that that is because they don’t care, or that all they care about is football. Rather, it’s because NFL locker rooms are tricky places where different position groups — and sometimes, white and black players — rarely speak to each other and sometimes even harbor dislike for each other. Defensive backs are more like wide receivers than they are like offensive linemen. That’s a generalization, but it also makes sense: both play glamour positions, while linemen… don’t. I’m not saying that this is a bad or unnatural thing, but rather that it makes it difficult to maintain a unified locker room, which in turn disincentivizes comments that can be interpreted as “divisive.” That may also be true in locker rooms or dugouts in other sports, which is one reason I understand the hesitance of athletes to speak out, but I think it’s especially true in football.

It goes beyond the players, too. Whereas the NBA has younger owners who come more often from technology than they do from oil, NFL ownership is older and decidedly more oily. There’s one non-white owner in the NFL, and that’s Shahid Kahn, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. In total, nine NFL owners gave at least $250,000 to Trump. Barring Jerry Jones (Mr. Classy), all nine spoke out against Trump’s comments (generally softly, but still) this weekend in what was a remarkable showing of unity. You have to hand it to Mr. Trump: not many people can make Commish Roger Goodell and NFLPA head honcho DeMaurice Smith agree on anything.

Remember, while Colin Kaepernick and a few others have been protesting and speaking out since the beginning of last year, that’s been the vast minority, and NFL owners have done more to stanch the protests than to support them, as they’ve refused to give Kaepernick another job (I don’t know and kind of doubt that it’s a league-wide conspiracy, but that fact is that Kaepernick deserves an NFL job and doesn’t have one). Outside of the select few, the players were almost silent before this weekend. This weekend, everything changed. Trump said a lot of stuff about the NFL and the anthem protests, but most of the stream-of-consciousness tweets were same old, same old. I think there were two things that were new, and two things that brought on this avalanche of backlash. The first was Trump’s “son of a bitch” comment about Kaepernick, and the second was that he tweeted multiple times that players who “disrespect” the flag should be “fired” (a term that serves as a clear sign that he’s no sports fan, by the way). This weekend, Trump threatened NFL players’ livelihoods and their First Amendment rights and called one of them a son of a bitch, and that seems to have been the final straw for a lot of players and even some owners.

There are a few ways things can go from here. I think it’s important to note that a lot of the snippets that came from NFL players, owners, and the commissioner were far from courageous. I’m sorry, but calling Trump’s comments “divisive” and leaving it at that just doesn’t do anything for me. That’s what I like to call a good, old-fashioned cop-out. Baby steps, though. Last time this blew up was when Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem, an act that was in fact courageous (regardless of whether you agree with kneeling during the anthem, you must admit it was brave). At the time, I expected things to blow over, because the NFL is the predominant “stick to sports” league and because most players will always choose football over political statements. For the most part, I think I was right. People talked about Kaepernick kneeling, but the protests didn’t pick up steam as the season continued, and Kaepernick is no longer on an NFL roster. How about this time? Are we going to see this revolt or faux-revolt (I maintain that it’s closer to a shoulder-shrug, especially from the owners) snowball in future weeks? If we’re talking about the NFL as a whole, I’m afraid the answer will again be no. The league is too conservative (as in both right-wing and cautious). But I do think that more individual players will continue to protest the anthem and speak out against the president, because I really do believe that this has been the breaking point for a lot of players.

Big picture, the really important questions are: outside of the anthem protests and hard or soft criticisms of Donald Trump, how will the players seek to make a difference? And will the general football-adoring public be receptive? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a more coordinated effort by players — both in the NFL and other leagues — to make a difference off the field (perhaps through foundations?). It’s going to be really interesting to see where this goes in the next few weeks and years. Calling Donald Trump divisive is easy. Now comes the hard part.

Week 3 Picks

Posted: 09/24/2017 by levcohen in Football

Well, it’s going to be hard for the London game to follow THAT up. The best type of game is the one that gets no attention going in and then sneaks up on you to become one of the games of the year. That’s what happened on Thursday, when the Rams edged the Niners 41-39. It was a heck of a game, one that had it all — three touchdowns from a running back, a few incredible catches (by Pierre Garcon), dramatic turnovers, a missed extra point, a failed two-point conversion, a successful onside kick, and so on. Can Baltimore and Jacksonville top it in the first London game of 2017? Absolutely not. I don’t expect a particularly exciting game at Wembley. But there are some intriguing games coming up later tomorrow, including Detroit-Atlanta, Washington-Oakland, and Kansas City-Los Angeles. Let’s get to the picks.

Baltimore Ravens (2-0, 2-0 against the spread) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-1, 1-1):
Spread: Ravens favored by 3
Over/under: 38.5
My prediction: The Jaguars are the type of team that cannot play from behind. Their game plan is to rely heavily on Leonard Fournette and their defense, and that worked in Week 1 because Houston basically self-destructed. The defense is good, but the Jaguars have very little chance of moving the ball against a Baltimore defense that’s long been terrific against the run. And this is the type of game script that will be very familiar to the Baltimore offense. We know that the Ravens don’t have an explosive offense, but we also know that the offense can win games via the run (as they did in Cincinnati) or the pass (as they did against Cleveland). In what’s likely to be a defensive battle, the Ravens should have the edge at quarterback and thus in the game. Ravens win 24-13.
Ravens cover
Under

Denver Broncos (2-0, 1-0-1) at Buffalo Bills (1-1, 2-0):*
Spread: Broncos favored by 3
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: This is a classic upset setup. The Broncos are riding high after consecutive home wins to start the season and especially after their thrashing of the Cowboys. Meanwhile, the Bills have played consecutive snoozers and mustered just three points against the Panthers last week. Denver’s going across the country for an early game, which is always tough. Trevor Siemian has looked terrific at home, but how will he do in a tough road environment? I have to say that I’ve been impressed by the Bills so far this season. After they seemingly punted on their season by trading Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, they’ve played tough defense and gotten solid play from Tyrod Taylor. I don’t have much hope for their offense against the Denver defense, but I think they can prevail in a low-scoring contest that sees Siemian and the Broncos fall back to earth. Bills win 17-12.
Bills cover
Under

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0, 1-1) at Chicago Bears (0-2, 1-1):
Spread: Steelers favored by 7
Over/under: 44
My prediction: Two weeks ago, the Falcons were favored by a touchdown in Chicago. They won by six, and Chicago had a chance to win the game in the last minute. I still think the Bears are going to be a tough team to beat at home, and Ben Roethlisberger is significantly worse when he’s not at Heinz Field. But I have a feeling that it isn’t going to be a good day for the Bears. Jordan Howard is banged up, which means that the Bears will likely be relatively one-dimensional and will have to rely on (gulp) Mike Glennon and his cast of misfits at receiver. To make matters worse, the Steelers have done a good job putting pressure on the opposing quarterback so far this season, as they’ve racked up nine sacks through two weeks. T.J. Watt is out and Stephon Tuitt might be too, but the Steelers should still be stout enough defensively to limit the Bears. And I think this is the breakout week for Le’Veon Bell, especially with Chicago linebacker Jerrell Freeman out for the season. I hate laying a touchdown, but lay it I will. Steelers win 27-14.
Steelers cover
Under

Atlanta Falcons (2-0, 1-1) at Detroit Lions (2-0, 2-0):
Spread: Falcons favored by 3
Over/under: 50.5
My prediction: This should be a fun game, and one that tells us a lot about the Lions. I have to say that I’m not that impressed by Detroit’s 2-0 record. Sure, they have notched convincing wins over the Cardinals and Giants, but both of those teams are clearly in offensive ruts right now. Detroit will be able to move the ball on most teams, but how will their defense hold up against a real offense? My guess: not particularly well. It’s a road game for the Falcons, but it’s being played in a dome, and Atlanta’s offense has been lights out in dome games since the start of last year. I just don’t see how the Lions will be able to slow down an offense as explosive and balanced as the Falcons’. They will be able to move the ball, especially through the air. But they won’t keep up with Atlanta. Falcons win 31-24.
Falcons cover
Over

Cleveland Browns (0-2, 1-1) at Indianapolis Colts (0-2, 1-1):
Spread: Browns favored by 1.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: The Browns are favorites for the first time since 2015 and road favorites for the first time since 2014. That shouldn’t surprise me, because it’s the Browns, but it still seems kind of crazy. Even crazier? I think they deserve to be. I’ve been relatively bullish on Cleveland this year, and I haven’t seen anything to dissuade me from picking against them in this game. At least Cleveland has been making some big plays happen with DeShone Kizer at quarterback. The Colts are just so listless without Andrew Luck. Browns win 24-20.
Browns cover
Over

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0, 1-0) at Minnesota Vikings (1-1, 1-1):*
Spread: Buccaneers are favored by 2.5
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: I’d normally be all over the Vikings in this game. I’m a big believer in their defense, and I don’t have much faith in Jameis Winston or Tampa Bay’s offense. But the fact that Sam Bradford is again out makes it really tough to trust Minnesota’s offense enough to pick them in this game. And yet… I’m doing it anyway. This just feels dangerous for Tampa. If the Saints couldn’t do much against the Minnesota defense on the road, how successful will the Buccaneers be? Without an elite quarterback or a consistent running game, I think it’s going to be tough for them to move the ball. Also working against the Buccaneers is the fact that they’ll be without two defensive linemen (due to illness) and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander (hamstring). Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m confident in Case Keenum. He averaged 4.5 yards per attempt while playing very conservatively in Week 2. But the Vikings should be able to get Dalvin Cook and their running game going at home, and they should do just enough to pull off a minor home upset. Vikings win 19-14.
Vikings cover
Under

New York Giants (0-2, 0-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-1, 1-1):
Spread: Eagles favored by 6
Over/under: 43
My prediction: The Giants have been horrendous offensively through three weeks. A lot of the blame lies on the offensive line, as Don La Greca knows from his 40 years of watching football. But how is Eli Manning not getting more flak? I think he’s been absolutely atrocious, and this coming after a mediocre-at-best season last year. I know Odell Beckham’s been banged up, but is it possible that Eli’s just bad now? It sure happened to his brother. Anyway, this is a mixed bag matchup-wise for New York’s offense. The good thing is that Jalen Mills can’t cover Beckham. If Odell is fully healthy, he’s going to get some chances. The bad thing is that the Eagles have a really good pass rush, and things aren’t going to get any easier for New York’s maligned offensive line. I think we know what we’re going to get with Philly’s offense. They aren’t going to run the ball a lot, but Carson Wentz will make enough plays to ensure a decent offensive performance. Eagles win 27-17.
Eagles cover
Over

Houston Texans (1-1, 1-1) at New England Patriots (1-1, 1-1):
Spread: Patriots favored by 14
Over/under: 45
My prediction: Let me make the case for the Texans: Yes, Deshaun Watson is going to have trouble in this game. No, I don’t think we are going to see a lot of points from Houston. But I’m not positive this is going to be a blowout, either. Remember last year in the playoffs, when Houston played New England tough? The best way to slow down the Patriots’ offense is to get pressure on Tom Brady, and the Texans have J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. This could turn into a low-scoring scrum, which bodes well for Houston’s chances… Just kidding. The Texans may keep it close for a while, but it’s hard for a defense to hold up when the offense is punting the ball over and over again. I have very little confidence in New England’s defense at this point, but I have less faith in the Houston offense. The Patriots will bust the game open in the second half and win 31-10.
Patriots cover
Under

Miami Dolphins (1-0, 1-0) at New York Jets (0-2, 0-2):
Spread: Dolphins favored by 6
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: On the one hand, I don’t think the Dolphins should be favored by six on the road in this game. They aren’t a great team, and they should have lost in Los Angeles. On the other hand, it’s very difficult for me to talk myself into picking the Jets to pull off a home upset. I’m going to split the difference and pick the Jets to cover, but I’m sure I’ll be shaking my head when the Dolphins win by 20. Dolphins win 26-23.
Jets cover
Over

New Orleans Saints (0-2, 0-2) at Carolina Panthers (2-0, 1-1):*
Spread: Panthers favored by 5.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: Here’s our first chance to see how much Greg Olsen’s injury hurts the Carolina offense. The thing is that the Panthers’ offense doesn’t have much room to fall before it’s a true liability. They scored just nine points against the Bills last week and rank 22nd in offensive DVOA through two weeks. The good news is that there’s no cushier matchup than home against the Saints, but even in this ideal setup I’m not sure the Panthers have an explosive offensive performance in them. It’s always smart to be wary of desperate 0-2 teams, especially ones with Drew Brees on them. Brees has struggled in Carolina throughout his career, and the Panthers have given up just six points all season, but New Orleans is no San Francisco (well, maybe they’re Thursday San Francisco) or Buffalo. The Saints will do just enough to win a game they badly need to win. Saints win 24-20.
Saints cover
Under

Seattle Seahawks (1-1, 0-2) at Tennessee Titans (1-1, 1-1):
Spread: Titans favored by 2.5
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: The Seahawks will probably end up being the better team in December, but I’ve seen too many road struggles in September for me to bite on what looks like a good upset possibility. The Titans are good offensively, but this will be a real challenge for them. The Seahawks are dominant against the run, so a lot will rest on the arm of Marcus Mariota. This game would make me nervous if I were a Tennessee fan, but the Seahawks’ offense has been so bad that I can’t pick them to win this game. Titans win 21-17.
Titans cover
Under

Cincinnati Bengals (0-2, 0-2) at Green Bay Packers (1-1, 1-1):
Spread: Packers favored by 7.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: This spread opened at 10 points, so there’s been serious movement away from the favored Packers. I think this is a better spread, because the Bengals are still a talented team. Maybe the change at coordinator will transform the offense into what I thought it could be heading into the season. I think the offense will show signs of life, but the Packers will pull away late. Packers win 30-20.
Packers cover
Over

Kansas City Chiefs (2-0, 2-0) at Los Angeles Chargers (0-2, 0-1-1):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 3
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: Poor Chargers. Two games, two losses on missed field goals. I picked the Chargers to win the AFC West because I thought their bad luck in close games would normalize this year. Apparently, that’s not going to happen. It would be very on brand for me to go back to the well again and to pick the Chargers to win in what’s likely to be a close game. But I can’t quite bring myself to do it. The Chiefs are good, but I really don’t see them as three-point-favorites-at-LA good. Alas, I’ll pick them anyway. Chiefs win 24-20.
Chiefs cover
Under

Oakland Raiders (2-0, 2-0) at Washington Redskins (1-1, 1-1):
Spread: Raiders favored by 3
Over/under: 54.5
My prediction: Including the Thursday game, there are 15 games this week with a true home team (the London one is the 16th, of course). In seven of those games, the home team is an underdog by three or fewer points. There are bound to be some upsets this week. Could this be one of them? I think it could be, but I’m not comfortable picking what’s clearly a mediocre Redskins team against the Raiders. Oakland’s the team that has surprised me most these first two weeks. I know they had a great record last year, but they weren’t a great team last season. I think they may just be a great team this year, and great teams win road games against mediocre opponents. Raiders win 31-24.
Raiders cover
Over

Dallas Cowboys (1-1, 1-1) at Arizona Cardinals (1-1, 0-2):*
Spread: Cowboys favored by 3.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: This is not a great Monday Night Football game. Like the Bengals, the Cardinals have been much worse than expected so far this year but are still getting a little respect from Vegas and are “just” 3.5 point home dogs against the Cowboys. It’s no surprise that the Cowboys are getting the lion’s share of the public action, but this is a dangerous game for Dallas. Arizona’s defense is best at doing two things: stopping the run and taking out the opponent’s best receiver with Patrick Peterson. The Cowboys, meanwhile, rely heavily upon Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant. Are the Cardinals good? Probably not. But I’m not sure the Cowboys are particularly good, either. This should be a good opportunity for Arizona to move the ball, and I’m going to pick them to notch a surprising primetime win and move to an unimpressive 2-1. Cardinals win 27-21.
Cardinals cover
Over

Upset picks:
Cardinals over Cowboys
Saints over Panthers
Vikings over Buccaneers
Bills over Broncos

This is why it’s dangerous to underestimate Sam Presti. Today, the Oklahoma City Thunder mercifully ended the multi-year long Carmelo Anthony saga. They got him for almost nothing. The Knicks, having dangled Anthony in the trade market for two years, had zero leverage. In the midst of a rebuild, they threatened to buy Anthony out this offseason, another clear sign that he was no longer in their plans. To make matters worse, ‘Melo has a full no trade clause and, although he clearly wanted out, limited his list of new teams to Houston, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and perhaps Portland. So it’s no surprise that it took just Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second round pick to get Anthony. But it’s worth reiterating how bad that return is. Kanter is a skilled center who can’t play defense and who gets played off the court by good teams. He played nine minutes per game in the playoffs last season and 18 in the year before. He’s also guaranteed nearly $37 million over the next two years and was included in the trade to make it work salary-wise. McDermott is a one-dimensional player. That dimension — three point shooting — is the most sought-after skill in basketball, and McBuckets will have a niche in the NBA as long as he shoots nearly 40% from beyond the arc. But he’s no more than a role player. And a second round pick is a second round pick.

This is clearly a win for the Thunder, and it wasn’t their first of the offseason. They came out of nowhere to win the Paul George sweepstakes, and had to give up just Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to do so. It was another example of Presti taking advantage of the depressed value of a star player — the price was so low because George is expected to sign with the Lakers when he hits free agency after this year. George is a better player than Anthony, but the premise is the same. Sam Presti has rolled the dice, going all in this season. I assume part of that is an attempt to convince Russell Westbrook to re-up longterm, but the fact is that a lot of teams with more assets than OKC wanted Anthony and especially George, and the Thunder somehow ended up with both.

The third big addition Presti made this offseason has garnered much less attention. The Thunder signed Patrick Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract. It was one of the steals of free agency. Patterson has been one of the kings of net rating over the past few years. Last season, the Raptors were +10.9 points per 100 possessions when Patterson was on the floor, six points better than their +4.9 overall. The year before, his +9.3 was five points better than their overall +4.3. Before that, his +5.3 was significantly better than the team’s +3.1. Patterson doesn’t put up gaudy stats, and he doesn’t have any elite skills, but there’s a reason he consistently plays about 25 minutes per game. He’s just a solid and versatile all-around player, and one who will be needed with bigs Sabonis and Kanter gone. His minutes may tick down a few notches this season, but make no mistake about it: Patterson is an important piece for a team with clear championship aspirations.

The Thunder went 47-35 last year because Russell Westbrook had an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime type season. They just managed to turn four role players — two with albatross contracts — into one of the NBA’s best two-way players and one of its best bucket-getters. Then they added a cheap role player who is arguably better than any of the four they just moved. How good are they going to be? I’m going to go out on a limb and say very good. I’m of the opinion that it’s impossible to win consistently with a player with Westbrook’s 2016-17 usage rate, but I also believe that Westbrook played the way he did last year not because he wanted to but because he had to. He no longer has to. I heard someone describe George as the very best second option in the league, and I think that’s the perfect way to describe him. He’s never been the best or most efficient isolation player, and I think it would be very difficult to win a championship with him as your first offensive option. But he’s a great defender, a 37% career three point shooter and shot 43.6% off the catch last season while finishing third in catch-and-shoot points per game. And he’s a good enough playmaker and passer to be a suitable floor general for short stretches of time. That last part is important, because last season the Thunder completely fell apart when Westbrook was off the court. In the regular season, they were +3.3 per 100 possessions when he was on the court, -8.9 when he was off of it. In the playoffs, the Thunder were +4.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court… and still lost in five games. That’s because they were a stunning -51.3 points per 100 possessions in the 46 minutes he rested. It’s clear that Westbrook needed help, and boy did he get it.

Anthony, like George, is labeled a small forward, but that means next to nothing in today’s NBA. The important thing is that both players are wings and will be able to fit nicely side by side. If George is a perfect complement to Westbrook, it may take longer for Anthony to adjust. He’s been his team’s primary option for his entire career, and he’s averaged upwards of 20 points per game in each season in his 14-year career. But there are a few reasons I’m not that worried about Anthony’s fit with OKC. First of all, you need at least two guys who can get their own bucket on the court at all times in order to compete at the highest level. Now, the Thunder have three. Second of all, Billy Donovan should be able to stagger Anthony’s minutes during the regular season so that he has plenty of opportunities to be the focal point of the offense. Third of all, Anthony has showed time and time again during his stints with Team USA that he thrives when he’s playing with other star players. Even if his scoring drops into the high teens (which it may not, by the way), Anthony should be more efficient than he’s been in years. The bottom line is that Carmelo Anthony is still an exceptionally talented offensive player who will add a lot to this team. He’s a defensive liability, but that won’t matter as much on a team with Paul George, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams.

I shouldn’t neglect to mention Roberson, who re-upped with a three-year, $30 million deal this offseason. That seems like a lot of money for one of the biggest offensive liabilities in the NBA — yes, I know that Roberson averaged 11.6 points per game in five playoff games and shot 41.6% from three, but I’ll side with four seasons worth of 26% shooting from three and 49% from the line — but the additions of George and Anthony will also help Roberson. Last year, Andre was just one of many useless offensive players playing with Russell Westbrook. Now, the team is well-suited to let Roberson do what he does best, which is completely shut down the opponent’s best player. That’s why the Thunder had to re-sign Roberson and why their roster looks even scarier.

I expect the Thunder to start Westbrook, Roberson, George, Anthony, and Adams, a tremendous rim-runner and defensive center who is the perfect 5 for this team. That’s a balanced, talented, and potentially dominant lineup. Then they have Patterson, who has terrific sixth man bonafides. Jerami Grant is an athletic wing who has improved his three point shot. Raymond Felton is a better backup point guard than anyone they had last year. But really, it’s all about the first six.

Of course, in today’s NBA everything goes back to one essential question: can this team beat the Warriors? And the answer is: probably not, unless something goes wrong with the Warriors. But a lot of things can go wrong, from injuries to chemistry issues. And at the very least, the Thunder are better than any competition the Warriors had in the Western Conference last year. Of course, the Rockets probably are too, and the Spurs are still the Spurs. That’s what makes the Western Conference so tough. But Oklahoma City’s tremendous offseason should make them as strong a candidate as any to knock off Golden State. Will it be enough to convince Westbrook and George to re-sign? That’s another question altogether.

Week 2 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 09/21/2017 by levcohen in Football

Two weeks in, there’s been a very noticeable lack of well-played, exciting, close games. Last week, seven games ended up as one-score games, up from four in Week 1. But take a closer look and you’ll realize that those seven games were generally close because both teams played horrendously rather than well. There was Bengals-Texans, Colts-Cardinals, Rams-Redskins, Niners-Seahawks and Bills-Panthers. All five of those games were between teams that are playing mediocre-at-best football right now. Dolphins-Chargers was slightly more watchable than those five, but it ended with a would-be game winning field goal that missed, something that has become sadly familiar for the Chargers. Neither of those teams are likely to make the playoffs. Then there was KC-Philly, which was a two-score game until the Eagles scored with eight seconds left. The Eagles recovered the ensuing onside kick and had a chance to tie the game, but the fact of the matter is that for the final three minutes — until the successful onside kick — the Chiefs had a 99.9% chance of winning the game. There just wasn’t a lot of watchable football. Here are some other takeaways from Week 2:

  • Don’t get carried away by Denver’s impressive 2-0 start. Make no mistake about it: the Broncos’ thrashing of Dallas was my favorite game of the week. I picked the Broncos to win, but I was shocked by the nature of the shellacking. I didn’t think Denver would be able to completely bottle up Ezekiel Elliott (they did), and I thought that Trevor Siemian would be very good but not great (he was great). It was an impressive performance. With that being said, I think it would be foolish to start penciling the Broncos in to the playoffs. First of all, they play in the toughest division in football. The Raiders and Chiefs are also 2-0, while the Chargers are 0-2 but, sans two missed field goals, could easily be 2-0. We saw the Broncos and Chargers play in Week 1, and while Denver was the better team, I don’t think the difference in talent was that great. It’s going to be tough for three AFC West teams to make the playoffs, both because there isn’t an easy win in the division and because the second place team in the AFC North looks primed to win double-digit games (and will have at least one and maybe two easy divisional opponents). Second of all, the Broncos’ two wins have both come at home. Home field advantage is generally overrated in the NFL, but Denver has been significantly better at home than on the road in recent years. Going on the road will be especially tough for the offense, which has been the catalyst for the surprising start. I’ll be interested to see how the Broncos do in a tough road game against the Bills this week. I’ll tell you this much: I think it’s pretty close to a pure tossup.
  • It’s been just about the ideal first two weeks from a Pittsburgh Steeler point of view. That seems like a weird thing to say, because the Steelers aren’t hitting on anywhere close to all cylinders and because the Ravens are also 2-0 and look like serious competition. But Pittsburgh’s done what it has needed to do defensively against inferior competition, and the defense looks like it may be as good as I had hoped it could be. Just as importantly, Le’Veon Bell has returned from his holdout and is healthy through two weeks. The production will come. In fact, the Steelers are still at full-strength offensively, something that hasn’t been true in quite some time. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and the offensive line are healthy, and as long as that remains true, the slow start offensively will remain a minor concern. More good news for the Steelers: first round pick T.J. Watt looks like an impact player, and the groin strain he suffered on Sunday was minor enough that he may play this week. Finally, the Patriots are nowhere near as good as some thought they’d be. I think that much is clear. They’re still quite good, but I’d argue that the Steelers have a better all-around roster. It’s been two weeks of underwhelming offensive performance, so the fact that Pittsburgh is 2-0 is telling. This could be the Super Bowl favorite.
  • What do Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon have in common? They were both drafted in the first round of the 2015 draft. They’re both helping out their fantasy owners a lot so far this year (Gurley is third and Gordon seventh in leagues that award a point per reception, which has become the standard setting on ESPN). They’re all going to get all the touches they can handle as the focal points on their respective offenses. They’re both capable of highlight plays. And neither one is a particularly efficient football player. Gurley averaged 3.2 yards per carry last year and is gaining 3.7 yards per tote this year. Gordon averaged 3.9 yards per carry last year and has gained just 67 yards on 27 carries this season. This is less a criticism of Gordon and Gurley than a suggestion that maybe offensive line play and play-calling have a lot more to do with a running back’s success than most would care to admit. This year’s leaders in yards per carry so far are Kareem Hunt, Carlos Hyde, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Chris Carson. Three rookies, a backup, and Carlos Hyde. Those five guys are all good at football (especially Hunt, Hyde, and Cook), but they’re not that much better than Gurley or Gordon if they’re better at all. So yes, I’d like to see more efficiency from the running backs drafted in 2015, but it’s not all on them.
  • Lions-Falcons is going to be fun. Both teams are 2-0 after double-digit wins over 2016 playoff teams last week. Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford are both playing at a high level. And each offense has a lot of room to improve. Julio Jones was getting everything he wanted early against the Packers, but then he disappeared and ended with just five catches. The explosive plays and big-gainers weren’t really there for the Falcons, either. That’ll come as Steve Sarkisian gets more comfortable in his first year as the offensive coordinator, because Atlanta has just as many weapons as they do last year, plus they seem to have more confidence in tight end Austin Hooper. And Detroit’s offense didn’t have to do much against a listless Giants team, but let’s see how it does when it’ll need to keep up in a high-scoring game against the Falcons. The Lions certainly have weapons in the passing game — Theo Riddick, Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay, Eric Ebron — and Ameer Abdullah was good enough in Week 2 to ensure that the Falcons won’t be able to sell out completely for the pass. I think it’ll be a good game, and one that should tell us whether the Lions are really contenders.
  • After losing Greg Olsen, I’m not sure the Panthers have enough offense to stay afloat. The defense has been exceptional, giving up six combined points in wins over the Niners and Bills. But Cam Newton looks shaky, and now he’s without his favorite target. I know the Panthers are 2-0, but I think they’ll be in trouble if they lose to the Saints. After New Orleans, they play away games against New England and Detroit before playing the Eagles. Then, they have two more road games against the Bears (who could be sneaky-good at home this season) and the Buccaneers and a home game against the Falcons. I’m hoping that the offense can get on track this week against the Saints, because if they struggle at home and lose to New Orleans, they could easily be 4-5 or 3-6 heading into Week 10.

This was a weird week for my picks. I did fine straight up and with the over/unders but absolutely tanked against the spread. I hope I’ll be able to turn that around this week, starting tonight.

13-3 straight up… 22-9 for the season
5-11 against the spread… 12-18-1
9-7 over/under… 17-13-1

My upset picks went 3-1, with the Redskins, Broncos, and Dolphins all hitting and the Packers missing. I’m 4-3 on those for the season.

Best picks:
Redskins 27, Rams 21… Actual result: Redskins 27, Rams 20
Chiefs 23, Eagles 20… Actual result: Chiefs 27, Eagles 20
Dolphins 27, Chargers 23… Actual result: Dolphins 19, Chargers 17

Worst picks:
Seahawks 35, Niners 10… Actual result: Seahawks 12, Niners 9
Packers 35, Falcons 31… Actual result: Falcons 34, Packers 23
Giants 23, Lions 16… Actual result: Lions 24, Giants 10
Cardinals 30, Colts 17… Actual result: Cardinals 16, Colts 13

Los Angeles Rams (1-1, 1-1 against the spread) at San Francisco 49ers (0-2, 1-1):*
Spread: Rams favored by 3
Over/under: 40
My prediction: Another barnburner on Thursday Night Football. It’s really ridiculous how bad most of these TNF matchups are, although I suppose it makes sense to get bad games out of the way on Thursday, because even games between good teams would likely be sloppy if they were played four days after each team’s last game. I’m going to keep on fading the Rams, because I think people got way too excited about them after their Week 1 win over the crappy Colts. Are the Rams better than they were last season? Sure, but so are the Niners, especially defensively. Plus, for what it’s worth, in their last 22 games the Niners are 3-0 against the Rams and 0-19 against everyone else. In all seriousness, the Niners match up fairly well with the Rams. A team that just got gashed by Washington’s anemic running game now faces Carlos Hyde, who just ran all over Seattle’s run defense. If San Francisco finds success on the ground, they should win this game. Niners win 23-20.
Niners cover
Over

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

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
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