2018 NFL Picks Week 1: 'member 2017? I 'member!
Last Year: 73-76-7 (hopefully you waited until the Super Bowl to follow my lead)
The NFL off-season is long, filled with non-stories and little in the way of positive news. Fans and media alike are left to fantasize and speculate longer than they should, which is how you end up with new pieces every year about every young player poised to make the leap, preemptive articles about the downfall of established stars, and more mock drafts than any human can hope to read in their lifetime.
While the trades, free agent signings, and draft picks a team makes can drastically alter their fortunes, their coverage is disproportionate to their impact. With that in mind, let's see which Week 1 lines seem a little wonky if we look all the way back to the distant 2017 season...
Atlanta Falcons +2.5 at Philadelphia Eagles
I made this pick assuming Nick Foles would be Philadelphia's starting quarterback, saw at the gym that my assumption was correct, found out Doug Pederson didn't mean to convey that information, and still can't rule the return of Carson Wentz out. I'd be surprised if he was back and operating at 100% just nine months removed from major knee surgery, and I don't think Foles will be able to consistently re-enter whatever zone he was in during the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. If that's the case, the Eagles will struggle to keep pace with an Atlanta offense still quite capable of putting up points even against stiff competition.
Green Bay Packers -8.5 vs. Chicago Bears
I also made this pick before news of the Mack trade, but my thought process here is even simpler. Green Bay has a healthy Aaron Rodgers to start the season, and the Bears are 1-8 in their last nine games against Rodgers at Lambeau. They've lost those eight games by an average of 19 points. I'm excited about our defense's potential, especially with the addition of a transformational talent like Mack, but until I see proof on the field, the King stay the King.
Washington Redskins EVEN at Arizona Cardinals
Two teams with new quarterbacks and unrealistic playoff hopes square off in the desert. Washington has moved on from bungling Kirk Cousins's contract situation by signing Alex Smith, last year's 8th-ranked passer by QBR. Carson Palmer retired after five seasons in Arizona and another injury, and the Cardinals picked up Sam Bradford as a stopgap to the Josh Rosen era. New Head Coach Steve Wilks and Arizona fans have reasons to be optimistic, including Rosen, a surprising 8-8 finish last year, and the return of David Johnson. Unfortunately, the roster and staff should take some time to gel, and Chosen Rosen isn't ready to lead them to the promised land just yet. Washington was better by Total DVOA (16th to 22nd) and point differential (17th to 24th) last season, and Alex Smith is the best quarterback on either roster. I think Washington wins a close one before injuries and Jay Gruden malfeasance submarine their season.
Jacksonville Jaguars -3 at New York Giants
These teams were worlds apart last season. Jacksonville rode its top-rated defense to a 10-6 record and two playoff wins while the Giants finished 3-13 and no higher than 23rd in any DVOA ranking. I would be stunned if the return of Odell Beckham Jr. and the arrival of Saquon Barkley was enough to make up the difference. Until/unless injuries derail the Jaguars' defense, they should be the same dominant force they were in 2017, and the Giants aren't ready to compete at that level.
Cincinnati Bengals +3 at Indianapolis Colts
I love me some Andrew Luck. He's my QB in our dynasty fantasy league, he's as exciting as any quarterback in the league in the 4th quarter, and he refuses to watch Game of Thrones until GRRM finishes the books. Still, we haven't seen him play since the 2016 season and the roster depth around him hasn't improved. Indianapolis was 4-12 last year and finished 31st in Total DVOA. The Bengals aren't exciting anyone, but they should be able to manufacture another anonymously mediocre campaign under the endless stewardship of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. I'm not expecting anything beyond a "meh" performance, but "meh" was enough for most teams last year to beat the Colts (they won two games last year by more than three points, both against Deshaun Watson-less Houston teams).
Pittsburgh Steelers -6 at Cleveland Browns
Is this a Hard Knocks effect or something? In case you somehow forgot, the Browns went 0-16 last season and retained the services of their head coach, Hue Jackson. He doesn't think anyone can do his job despite his inability to settle on a starting offensive line in the week leading up to their first game. The Steelers were considerably better at 13-3 and bring back their usual cast of stars. True, the Browns have played the Steelers tough recently (three consecutive losses by 4 points or fewer after three consecutive blowouts), but I think those results reflect Pittsburgh's apathy more than any magic scheme Cleveland has put together. I'm generally a fan of the personnel moves the Browns made this offseason, but putting them within one score of the AFC elite feels premature.
Minnesota Vikings -6 vs. San Francisco 49ers
Evaluating Minnesota this year is tricky. I'm pretty confident Kirk Cousins is a better quarterback than Case Keenum, but it's hard to see him being markedly better than the 2017 version of Case Keenum who finished 2nd in QBR and turned the ball over just eight times all season. I'm even less convinced, though, that Jimmy Garoppolo is a young Tom Brady ready to lead a pretty bad (20th in DVOA) 49ers team to the playoffs. Kyle Shanahan could prove me wrong by crafting a brilliant gameplan against Minnesota's 2nd-ranked defense, but I don't think they'll be able to overcome the all-around talent gap unless Jimmy is truly transcendent.
Carolina Panthers -3 vs. Dallas Cowboys
I mentioned this in our NFC Over/Unders podcast, and it's the core tenet of this selection: people are oddly dismissive of the Panthers since their 15-1 campaign in 2015. Perhaps it's bias brought on by Cam Newton's surly interviews or just sharing the spotlight with exciting division foes like the Saints and Falcons, but the Panthers are still really good. They won six of their eight home games last year including tilts against the Vikings and the Falcons, and the Cowboys aren't as good as either of those teams. Even if the game turns into a slog, Carolina's 7th-ranked defense should stifle Dallas long enough to pick up the win.
New Orleans Saints -10 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starting quarterback of last year's 23rd-ranked team by DVOA, traveling to New Orleans for a season opener against Drew Brees and 2017's top-ranked team by DVOA. New Orleans was superior in every facet of the game this year, and while I don't think the decline from Jameis Winston to Ryan Fitzpatrick is as steep as some want to believe, it certainly doesn't help. I don't know if it will resemble Nathan Peterman against the Chargers, but...actually, it might.
Los Angeles Rams -3.5 at Oakland Raiders
This line was before Khalil Mack was traded to the Bears, but it didn't make sense to begin with. Last year the Rams went 11-5 and finished 2nd in Total DVOA; the Raiders went 6-10 and finished 19th. The Rams added Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, and Marcus Peters to the league's 6th-best defense by DVOA; the Raiders finished 29th with Mack. The Raiders' once-promising set of skill-position players has dwindled to Amari Cooper (48 catches last year) and a 32-year old Marshawn Lynch. It's going to be a long year for Oakland and Jon Gruden, and it's going to start with a thumping in Week 1.
That's all for this week! Kick back, grab a drink, 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.