2017 NFL Picks: Week 4
We did it! We got back to .500 last week! Sure, it was just for the week and I'd hoped to get there for the season, but perpetual incremental improvement logically leads to 16-0 every week.
Let’s use the intro to address the story of Week 3, at least among the majority of people I talk and watch football with: the Lions stunning near-win over the Falcons. In case you missed it and want to get caught up before reading on, here’s the game-ending play.
The ruling on the field was a touchdown, which would have essentially ended the game (unless the Lions did something stupid like the Bears did in 2008). Upon review, the ruling was (correctly) overturned, and because of a well-intentioned but unnuanced rule, the remaining 8 seconds on the clock were consumed by the mandatory 10-second runoff. A lot of Lions fans are understandably upset about this dramatic turn of events, and the string of mishaps they’ve suffered over the years doesn’t help. First, there was this game-winning touchdown catch against the Bears back in 2010, a time apparently before high-quality embeddable content:
They totally got screwed on this one. That was such a catch that I turned the TV off in disgust and began my customary cursing of Lovie Smith’s name until text messages of astonishment began pouring in.
Next, a rare Lions playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. Brandon Pettigrew goes out for a pass, and after blatantly shoving his defender, has to come back to the ball. The Cowboys’ linebacker then interferes with him, and the flag thrown for pass interference is picked up by the referee and waved off. It was…weird, and I've never seen something quite like it:
Of course, there were still 8 minutes left in the game, so giving up the lead from there is just more classic Lions. Early the next season, in a game against Seattle, Kam Chancellor forced a Calvin Johnson fumble at the goal line to secure a last-second win for the Seahawks.
The “screwed” argument here rests on the referees not penalizing K.J. Wright for “illegal batting," one of the stupider-sounding rules in the book, upon seeing the ball bounce his way. Yes, it was illegal batting, which would have led to a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line for Detroit. Resting your hopes on a judgment call based on a player’s intent is risky, though.
Now, back to the play from Sunday. Tate is touched on his way down and the ball is short of the goal line when his knee touches the ground. I agree that without the required 10-second runoff the Lions likely would have gotten another snap off, but they’d already run 11 plays inside the Falcons' 40-yard line. They were dinged for an iffy offensive pass interference call 9 plays prior; they also threw a game-ending interception two plays after that, but were lucky enough to have it nullified by a dodgy defensive holding call. They ran two other plays from Atlanta’s 1-yard line, and this third try also came up short. Stafford might have been better off sneaking on a hurried 4th-and-goal attempt than listening to Jim Bob Cooter on the three (or eleven) prior plays, but it's hardly a sure thing. This one is on the Lions too.
If the Lions are tired of losing games in the final moments or as a result of judgment calls, they should avoid the little mistakes and poor coaching that put them in that position in the first place. Maybe try running routes all the way to the goal line or not interfering with fair catch attempts late in the fourth quarter of games.
While that was going down, my Bears were off making Chicago proud
Ugh. On to the picks.
Kansas City Chiefs -7 vs. Washington Redskins
Evaluations of Washington depend on two things at this point: whether you watched their Week 1 loss to the Eagles or their Week 3 smothering of the Raiders, and what you think of the Los Angeles Rams. If you think the Jared Goff metamorphosis is for real, it’s easy to toss out the Eagles game as a tough game against a divisional rival and credit them with two quality wins. If you’re skeptical of the transformation, you might chalk Monday night’s win up to an Oakland off-night and wonder how they only beat L.A. by one score. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are 3-0 with clear wins over the Patriots, Eagles, and Chargers, two of which were on the road. Captain Kirk will come up short this week unless Alex Smith reverts to his Captain Checkdown ways.
New England Patriots -9 vs. Carolina Panthers
New England narrowly escaped with a win over Houston last week thanks to an absolute dime from Tom Brady with 23 seconds left (take note – you don’t have to wait until you’re inside the 5 to go for the win). Carolina fell to the Saints, with their offense once again struggling to crack double digits. The Patriots haven’t scored fewer than 27 points in their last 8 games; the Panthers’ high over the same stretch is 23. Cam Newton needs more time to get healthy, and until then, the Panthers can't keep up with any team fielding a competent offense.
Los Angeles Chargers -1.5 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
I’ve cooled on the Eagles after watching them deal me losses in consecutive weeks, but really I should be staying away altogether. They were one of two teams that killed me last year, when I went 2-9 picking their games. The Chargers have to win eventually, though, and this week, at home against a sputtering Eagles' offense, is as good an opportunity as any. Another wrinkle to keep an eye on here is the absence of Darren Sproles, one of my favorite players in the league and Carson Wentz’s safety valve out of the backfield in critical situations. He’s been underrated for his entire career, and I think people are underestimating his importance to Philadelphia’s offense.
Houston Texans +1.5 vs. Tennessee Titans
Deshaun Watson almost came away with a victory over Tom Brady last week, and this pick is probably my overreaction to that game. Marcus Mariota has two years of experience on Watson, and his offensive line is in much better shape. I’m just not ready to pick Tennessee as a road favorite, especially against a Houston team they’re 2-8 against in the past five years. Houston’s defense just hasn’t bent against the Titans’ offense, allowing only 14 points per game since Mariota’s arrival in 2015. Unless Tennessee can wear down J.J. Watt and company the way they did Seattle’s (admittedly fearsome) defense last week, I like the home team and the points in a low-scoring affair.
San Francisco 49ers +7 at Arizona Cardinals
It’s going to hurt me every week until Vegas corrects the lines, but can anyone explain why the Cardinals are favored by a touchdown? Did last week’s 11-point home loss to the Cowboys demonstrate some impending turnaround? Larry Fitzgerald remains brilliant, but Carson Palmer remains inconsistent and David Johnson remains injured. If there’s anyone in the NFL who knows the ceiling of an offense like this, it’s Fitz himself, whose team has oscillated from unwatchable to Super Bowl contender with the quality of its quarterback play. The Niners, meanwhile, have quietly looked like a mediocre team all year, losing to the Seahawks and Rams by 5 total points in the last two weeks. Mediocre should allow them to hang in this game longer than anyone in Arizona will like.
Seattle Seahawks -13 vs. Indianapolis Colts
Wake-up call for the Colts here, who were enGoffed in flames in Week 1 before losing to the Cardinals at home and pulling out a close win over the Browns last week. Now, their bottom-rung defense will need to generate pressure on Russell Wilson in order to stay in the game, a tall order for a group led by…*checks ESPN’s sack leaders*…who? Seriously, no one on the Colts is in the top 25, so let me know if you have time to look it up. The Seahawks desperately need a win, and at home against Jacoby Brissett I expect their defense to shine. Indianapolis will probably outperform the Jimmy Clausen Bears of 2015 (10 possessions, 10 punts), but not by enough to stay within two touchdowns.
Baltimore Ravens +3 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Ravens traveled to London last week and made 2017 Blake Bortles look like 2013 Peyton Manning. I didn’t watch that game, in part because it started at 6:30 AM Pacific Time and in part because I get a weekly helping of poor quarterback play every time I tune into my Bears' games. I prefer to exclude London games from consideration; after all, the Jaguars are 3-0 at Wembley Stadium since 2015 and 8-25 everywhere else. This was just another London aberration.
The Steelers have no comparable excuse for losing to Mike Glennon in Chicago last week. Their offense just isn’t as dangerous as we all expected it to be, and even firing on all cylinders in the past they’ve struggled to win in Baltimore. The Ravens have won their last four home games against Pittsburgh, and their only two home losses in the series since 2010 have both been by 3 points. If that continues, Pittsburgh fans might look at Carson Palmer and wonder if he and Roethlisberger have more in common than we all thought four weeks ago.
Atlanta Falcons -8 vs. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo surprised everyone by roughing up the Broncos on Sunday, but there was a lot of weirdness in play. The Broncos were traveling east for an early game after an impressive win over the Cowboys, Trevor Siemian was an NFL quarterback, and Buffalo was desperate for a win after their narrow loss in Carolina. Now the Bills are traveling to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in a dome. Buffalo is 6-11 in their last 17 road games, while Atlanta is 10-4 in their last 14 games in indoor stadiums, averaging 35.5 points per game. Their offense likes to play fast, and they’ll be able to control the ball and the tempo in this one.
Los Angeles Rams +6 at Dallas Cowboys
All aboard the Goffstream! A conversation on the Bill Barnwell show (podcast) this week motivated me to pick this game, detailing the sorry state of affairs in Los Angeles last season. As a rookie, Goff was thrown in behind a terrible (29th in rush- and pass-blocking by DVOA) offensive line and asked to throw to a terrible (Kenny Britt was their highest-ranked, at 28th) group of receivers. Welcome to the NFL!
New Rams’ head coach Sean McVay has seemingly injected life into the previously moribund offense, scoring over 30 points per game through three weeks. Prior to becoming the youngest-ever NFL head coach, McVay was the offensive coordinator in Washington, where he helped Kirk Cousins stay within 6 points of Dallas in 5 of 6 games. The Cowboys have struggled to re-establish their dominant identity from last year, when they rode Ezekiel Elliott and their offensive line to a 13-3 record. With a little help from Aaron Donald, the Rams could make this game more interesting than you’d expect based on last season alone.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -3 vs. New York Giants
Tampa Bay will be looking to bounce back from a bad loss in Minnesota, where they were lit up by Case effing Keenum. The Giants are equally desperate, needing a win to avoid an 0-4 start. While almost all of the attention has been focused on the Giants’ offensive struggles, their defense has quietly slid to 27th in DVOA through three weeks. If they can’t force turnovers from Generous Jameis Winston, their offense won’t do enough to keep them in this game on the road.
Cincinnati Bengals -3 at Cleveland Browns
Are the Bengals terrible or mediocre? I was as ready as anyone to bury them after their dismal debut, a 20-0 loss to the Ravens. Since then, they’ve lost a tough game to Houston and nearly pulled out a win at Lambeau. I want to be clear: I don’t think the Bengals are good. But if they’re a 7-9 to 9-7 team, they’re well ahead of the Browns. Cleveland is now 0-3 on the year with losses to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Indianapolis. DeShone Kizer has played like the rookie he is, turning the ball over 8 times in three games, and first overall pick Myles Garrett is yet to play a down for the defense. On top of those concerns, Cincinnati has won the last five meetings in this “rivalry” by an average of 22.4 points. 22.4! I don’t think they’ll win by three touchdowns this week, but they should definitely get their first win of the season.
That's all for this week! Kick back, relax, and feel free to blame me if you put money on these picks and come out behind. I won't compensate you, but maybe your significant others will send their wrath in my direction instead of yours.