NFL WEEK 3: Week 3 arrived with a bang, as rookie Baker Mayfield took over for an injured and ineffective Tyrod Taylor in the 2nd quarter of Thursday night’s Browns/Jets game and immediately injected life into a moribund offense, leading the Browns to a 14-point comeback and their first win since the 2016 season.
Mayfield finished the game 17/23 for 201 yards– and the statline would’ve been even better had it not been for a couple of uncharacteristic drops by the likes of Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway. Browns coach Hue Jackson was noncommittal when asked after the game whether Mayfield was going to be the starter going forward, but allow me to clear up the mystery before the news “officially” breaks next week: barring injury, Tyrod Taylor has taken his last snap as quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. The Baker Mayfield Era is here, and if last night is a taste of what’s to come, we may see the plates begin to shift in the AFC North. Great quarterback play changes everything.
We’ve got some intriguing matchups this week, with Rams/Chargers– the Battle of L.A.– standing out as the Sunday headliner. The Rams went on an offseason spending spree, signing vets like Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, and Brandin Cooks in an all-out push for the Super Bowl, and it appears to have paid off thus far, as no team has been more impressive over the season’s first two weeks. But they’ll get their first real test this week, and the way the Philip Rivers-led Chargers offense is rolling I’m not sure anyone can slow them down. A high-scoring game is expected.
Other highlights include Saints/Falcons, Jags/Titans, Packers/Redskins, and the Monday night Steelers/Bucs game, which we discuss below, and the obvious lowlight involves the pathetic Buffalo Bills, who are a staggering 16.5-point underdog in Minnesota. That’s the type of line you’re more likely to see in college football, and yet I don’t know anyone who’s too eager to throw their hard-earned money at the Bills. It’s a depressing time in Buffalo… and the weather hasn’t even turned cold yet.
Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Denver Broncos @ Baltimore Ravens (Bal -5, 44.5)
Recommendation: Baltimore -5 at 1.92
The Broncos are, in my estimation, the most vulnerable of the 2-0 teams, and this week they travel to Baltimore to face a Ravens team that appears to be much-improved on both sides of the ball. Joe Flacco seems rejuvenated now that he’s surrounded by a fresh batch of weapons, throwing for over 600 combined yards in the team’s first two games and seeming to develop a great connection with deep threat John Brown. The defense, meanwhile, ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed– I know it’s early and I know they played Buffalo in Week 1, but it’s clearly a capable unit that should keep the Ravens in a lot of games this season.
That Baltimore defense should be just fine this week against a Denver offense that has been very mediocre thus far, with an undrafted rookie dominating touches out of the backfield and newly-signed quarterback Case Keenum completing fewer than 60% of his passes, throwing more interceptions that touchdowns, and generally looking like the journeyman backup who bounced around from team-to-team for so many years, rather than the guy who led Minnesota to the brink of the Super Bowl last season. Yes, the Broncos have won both of their games, but the wins have come by a combined 4 points, they’ve both been in Denver, and the two teams they beat have a combined record of 0-4. I don’t like their chances here– and I don’t think it will be particularly close.
Green Bay Packers @ Washington Redskins (GB -3, 45.5)
Recommendation: Washington +3 at 1.81
Let’s be clear about one thing: Aaron Rodgers is hurt. Anyone who watched Green Bay’s 29-29 tie with Minnesota last week could see that Rodgers wasn’t himself– his mobility was limited with the large brace on his left knee, he was hesitant to escape the pocket, and he seemed to be hesitant about stepping into some throws. He hasn’t practiced this week and he’s openly conveyed concern about the injury worsening as the season progresses. Of course, we’ve seen firsthand that Rodgers at 70% or even 60% is still better than what the Packers have in reserve, but the Green Bay defense is average at best, and with a hobbled Rodgers it’s going to be tough sledding on the road in Washington this week.
The Skins are coming off a loss to Indianapolis, but they actually out-gained the Colts in the game and Alex Smith played fairly well, going 33/46 for 292 yards and no turnovers. And though the sample size is admittedly small, the Washington defense has been a pleasant surprise, ranking first in the league in yards allowed and second in points allowed through two games. Bottom line: a gimpy Aaron Rodgers is the only thing keeping the Redskins from being a solid favorite in this game. Rodgers is great, but he’ll be facing a confident defense and a Washington team that’s probably better than most realize. I like the Skins as a 3-point ‘dog here.
Indianapolis Colts @ Philadelphia Eagles (Phi -6.5, 47)
Recommendation: Indianapolis +6.5 at 2.0
The big storyline out of Philadelphia this week is the triumphant return of Carson Wentz, the franchise QB who has been out since injuring his knee last December. Wentz is back, so the offense will put its early-season struggles behind it and immediately transform back into the juggernaut of last season… right? Well, the reality may be a little messier— Wentz hasn’t seen live action in 9 months and he’ll be working with a decimated receiving corps, as go-to wideout Alshon Jeffery is expected to miss his third consecutive game with a shoulder injury and free agent acquisition Mike Wallace is out indefinitely after fracturing his fibula last week.
The Philly defense has issues of its own after getting torched by Tampa’s Ryan Fitzpatrick last week, and things won’t get any easier this week when Andrew Luck comes to town, as Luck has hit the ground running after missing all of last season and is fresh off leading the Colts to an upset win in Washington. The Indianapolis defense has exceeded expectations thus far and was positively stingy last week, holding the Redskins without a touchdown and limiting them to just 65 rushing yards on 22 attempts, so I’d be very surprised if Wentz and the Eagles were just able to sprint up and down the field here. No, I think this will be a much tougher game for the home team than many are anticipating, and 6.5 points may be a bit too much in this situation.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Mon.) (Pit -1.5, 53.5)
Recommendation: Tampa Bay moneyline at 2.12
Expectations vs. reality is the story here– Pittsburgh was expected to be a Super Bowl contender, Tampa Bay was supposed to be a basement-dweller, and yet here we are: the Bucs have put together what might be the most impressive resume in the NFL through two weeks, beating the Saints and Eagles, while the Steelers are winless, still without All-Pro tailback Le’Veon Bell, and embroiled in fresh drama involving star wideout Antonio Brown. Plus, the Pittsburgh defense is just awful– they collapsed in the 4th quarter of a Week 1 tie with Cleveland before surrendering 6 touchdown passes in a Week 2 loss to Kansas City. And now… FitzMagic.
All kidding aside, Ryan Fitzpatrick has been absolutely tremendous over the past two weeks, and it’s not as fluky as some are suggesting– remember, Fitz is just three years removed from throwing for 3,900 yards and 31 TDs with the Jets, so he’s had success. What he hasn’t had is a receiving corps like he has now, with the unguardable Mike Evans lining up opposite speedster DeSean Jackson, and explosive 2nd-year man Chris Godwin also in the mix. It’s a scary offense right now, and the Pittsburgh defense isn’t scaring anybody. This is one of those “wrong team is favored” instances, but it’s understandable because of the preseason expectations– people have not yet adjusted to the new reality. That creates opportunity for those who are paying attention.