2016 NFL Picks: Week 4
Last Week: 1-2
Week 3 Recap
I am going to start my section with an anecdote. I was reading a FiveThirtyEight article where Nate Silver, their head numbers man, talked about how he underestimated Donald Trump's candidacy at the beginning of the primaries. One sentence, in particular, stood out to me:
"...we succumbed to some of the same biases that pundits often suffer, such as not changing our minds quickly enough in the face of new evidence."
Although we have only played three weeks in the 2016 season, there feels like a mountain of evidence for and against the ascent of a few teams. It's a little like the new Who We Thought They Were on the QQ podcast focused on early-season overreaction: how much evidence is needed before you can dash your hopes or ramp up your expectations?
There are a few teams under- or over-performing out of the gate. Now, some of these (maybe all) could return to what we predicted earlier, but how do we tell who? The Eagles, Cards, Bears, Panthers, and Vikings are the teams that immediately come to mind (personally, the Jags have basically broken my heart at this point).
But, it's still a little early to worry.
The Eagles have only beaten one valid team; the Browns and the Bears could be the two worst teams in the NFL. The Steelers seem to be treading water as they wait for Le'Veon Bell to return, so I'm not ready to crown the Eagles just yet.
The above passage makes it clear I think the Bears are actually as bad as they seem to be. They are. Next.
The Cards and the Panthers seem to be in the same boat to me. They surged onto the scene last year with great defenses and explosive offenses. They've been a bit sluggish to begin the season, but I'm holding out until more time passes. The Panthers' model, however, is more sustainable (Reigning MVP QB in his prime vs. 36 year-old QB), and I believe they lost a lot less (even though the Panthers said goodbye to their best corner in Josh Norman.)
I may as well go ahead and crown the Vikings' defense. They're a bit more than I thought they were. I can't imagine they are going to keep it up all year, but that defense is making Sam Bradford seem like a competent option.
Another week, another disappointment. I felt pretty good as the Raiders held against Tennessee, but Carson Palmer kept throwing the ball to the previously-unimpressive Bills defense. Still, I was confident the first winning week of 2016 was in line going into the Steelers-Eagles game.
I certainly wasn't the only one anticipating an easy cover by the away team, but Carson Wentz kept rolling right along. More surprisingly, the Eagles defense smothered the high-octane Steelers offense, limiting them to three points all game. Let's take a look at both sides of the ball.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3) -3.5 at Philadelphia Eagles (34) - LOSS - Carson Wentz shined against the first legitimate defense he's seen this season. After carving up the Browns and Bears, he didn't miss a beat, going 23-for-31 for 301 yards and two touchdowns. At first glance, his 9.7 YPA (yards per attempt) suggests the all-you-can-eat buffet of short routes he saw to this point turned into a more balanced attack. Take out the 73-yard touchdown the ageless (and awesome) Darren Sproles created off a 15-yard pass, though, and the number falls to 7.6 YPA. The offense was good, but holding the Steelers to 3 points is the headline.
Jim Schwartz, Defensive Coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, is a "that guy" extraordinaire. In 2014, he had Bills' players carry him off of Ford Field triumphantly after a win over his former employer. Whenever he pops up, I remember a story a fellow Michigander told me leading up to his first season with the Lions. It involved shotgunning a beer in a college environment with college students. I think the story was meant to be endearing, but I couldn't help wondering why a head coach in the NFL was mingling with undergraduates as he prepared to inherit an 0-16 team. My concerns were clearly misplaced, though: he led the Lions to a 2-14 season in 2009 and marked his one winning season (2011) by confronting Jim Harbaugh over an offensive handshake.
Where was I? Right, not a fan of Jim Schwartz the person. As a coordinator, though, he's had some success. I want to drop-kick every announcer who blathers on about the "wide-9" technique (it's just lining your defensive ends up slightly wider than usual), but that isn't the point. Shutting down the Steelers offense was impressive, and this Eagles defense might be the real deal.
The Steelers could have made this a much tighter game without injuries to their linebackers (Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier were notably hobbled) and a bad game from Markus Wheaton (his early dropped touchdown would have been impactful), but the Eagles are 3-0.
Arizona Cardinals 18 (-4) at Buffalo Bills 33 - LOSS - I should have remembered how much the Cardinals have struggled going east for early games. This one was never particularly close, but Carson Palmer and the Cards have a chance to rebound against the division-leading(?!) Los Angeles Rams in Glendale.
Oakland Raiders 17 (+1.5) at Tennessee Titans 10 - WIN - The Titans under Mike Munchak have struggled on offense. Through three games, they've now scored five offensive touchdowns and turned the ball over seven times. It's pretty easy to guess how your offense is doing when you have more turnovers than touchdowns. While the defense again looked solid, the Titans lost 17-10, and I got my one win.
Oakland Raiders +3.5 at Baltimore Ravens
Oakland is once again an underdog on the road in the eastern time zone. I mentioned the effect this can have on a team last week, but there's another effect I want to focus on here. Baltimore is fourth in the league in points allowed per game, at 14.7. Three weeks is a small sample size, though, and they've played the Bills, Browns, and Jaguars. No one should be giving up more than twenty points to those teams. I think Oakland will spread it on a bit more generously, and Joe Flacco and co. will struggle to keep up. I'll take the points!
Denver Broncos -3 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I want to copy-and-paste the section I wrote when I picked the Cardinals to cover their spread against Tampa Bay in Week 2, but it would be lazy even for me. Jameis Winston is a turnover machine; through three games he's given the ball to the other team seven times. The Denver defense is just as good as it was last year, and Trevor Siemian flashed some competence last week, throwing four touchdowns against a fair Cincinnatti defense. So far Tampa has beaten Atlanta and lost to the Cardinals and the Rams, failing to cover both times. I like this line a lot.
Carolina Panthers -3 at Atlanta Falcons
The Panthers are now 1-2, one game behind the Falcons in the NFC South. They've also played two of their first three games against what might be the two best defenses in the league. The Panthers defense is far better than anything Matty Ice and the Falcons have seen so far (the Buccaneers, Raiders, and Saints rank 21st, 29th, and 30th in team defense) and the Panthers need this win. Carolina may be banged up, but they should cover three points on the road here.
Arizona Cardinals -8 vs. Los Angeles Rams
The Cardinals have made a habit of blowing out truly bad teams at home over the past few seasons, which begs the question: are the Rams truly bad? Or just kind of bad? Let's dig in.
Offense: the Rams scored 0 points against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, 9 points in a win over Seattle in Week 2, and 37 in a win over the Bucs in Week 3. It was going to be really easy to say "truly bad" until that last one. So what changed? Well, they managed 320 yards of total offense but got help from their defense and the aforementioned Winston, who threw an interception to set up a 22-yard scoring drive. The added another touchdown on a fumble recovery. Screw the points, their offense and Case Keenum are TRULY BAD.
Defense: they allowed 28 points to the 49ers, only 3 to Russell Wilson's Seahawks, and 32 to the Buccaneers. Again, one big outlier in there. I can't quite figure out what happened in that game, either. The Seattle offensive line is terrible, but Wilson was only sacked twice. There's certainly some talent on the Rams' defense, but they also have a lot of holes. I'll be generous and give them a KIND OF BAD.
Special Teams: according to Football Outsiders, the Rams rank 6th in Special Teams through three weeks. I'll take their word for it, which means they're actually...PRETTY GOOD in this phase.
If I were to mix those three, I'd probably end up with a rating of so-so, but you can't stop there when a team's offense is led by Case Keenum. His incompetence cannot and will not be denied; Cardinals win by double digits to get back in the NFC West race.
Like John, I am taking Denver -3 at Tampa Bay.
Jets +2.5 at home against Seattle: Russel Wilson is on one leg and that Jets front is tough. A few hits on the QB, and we might watch the debut of Trevone Boykin. Also, FitzMagic has thrown enough 4+ INT games to know how to bounce back from one...
Truck: I'm scared for Fitzpatrick against the Seattle secondary, but I'm terrified for Russell Wilson against the Jets line. I'll take them too!
Gimme the Lions -3 at the Bears. Do I need to explain this? A banged-up Bears secondary. Matt Stafford. The, to this point, best WR in the league, Marvin Jones.
Truck: I wish I had the confidence to argue this one, but I don't. Especially when you remember Da Bears have no home field advantage.
I've covered the Jags enough for you to know why I love them. They're 0-3, and I realize that, but it's a make or break week for their entire season. A real must win. I'm going to take the Jags +2.5 in London vs. the Colts.
Truck: You would. The Jaguars versus Andrew Luck has typically come out in Luck's favor over the past few years.