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NFL WEEK 4: A wild Thursday nighter kicked off Week 4, as the much-maligned Philadelphia secondary intercepted Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the end zone with 25 seconds left in the 4th quarter to preserve a crucial 34-27 win for the Eagles. It was a compelling matchup, and though it’s far too early to speculate about the playoffs and “must win” situations, you get the feeling that several of these Week 4 games could be pivotal in shaping the seasons of the teams involved.

Take Cleveland, for instance: the Browns were the darlings of the offseason, projected by many to be a serious Super Bowl contender for the first time in over 30 years. Now they travel to Baltimore as a 7-point underdog, needing a victory to avoid falling into a 1-3 hole. The desperation is palpable for other teams, too, teams like Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina, and the L.A. Chargers. And then there are teams facing clear “prove it” situations, like the undefeated Bills, who seem to get stomped at home by New England every season but now have a chance to write a new chapter. Or the Detroit Lions, also undefeated and coming off impressive wins over the Chargers and Eagles, now returning home to face the heavily-hyped Chiefs as a 7-point ‘dog. Nobody is really taking the Bills or Lions seriously… yet. But Sunday could change that.

Here’s what I’m thinking for what should be a very interesting Week 4:

Carolina Panthers @ Houston Texans (Hou -4, 47.5)

Recommendation: Carolina +4 at 1.94

The Texans are coming off back-to-back wins after losing a Week 1 thriller to New Orleans, and most now have them pegged as the clear favorites in the AFC South. If you’ve seen them play, however, you know there are serious problems: the offensive line is measurably the worst in the NFL, allowing QB pressure on a league-high 50.9% of dropbacks. Deshaun Watson takes an absolute beating every week, and though the Panthers have a couple of injuries along the defensive line, there’s plenty of talent remaining– Carolina ranks second in the NFL in sacks with 12, and fourth in yards allowed (295.3 ypg). It’s going to be really tough sledding for Watson and the Houston offense this week.

And then there’s the Texans secondary, a unit that gets exploited on a weekly basis. In Week 1, it was Drew Brees throwing for 370 yards and a pair of TDs. There’s no shame in getting burned by Brees, but in Week 2 they made rookie Gardner Minshew look like a seasoned veteran in his first NFL start, and last week it was Philip Rivers putting up 318 yards and two TDs. Carolina’s Kyle Allen may be young and inexperienced, but he absolutely lit it up in relief of Cam Newton last week, throwing for 261 yards and 4 TDs on only 26 attempts. In two career road starts, Allen has thrown six touchdowns, zero interceptions, and is averaging over 9 yards per attempt. Newton has been a great player for many years and is an icon in the city of Charlotte, but Norv Turner’s offense sure looked better with Allen under center than it did with a hobbled Cam. I like the youngster’s chances this week against the exploitable Houston secondary, making the Panthers an attractive play here as a 4-point ‘dog.

Oakland Raiders @ Indianapolis Colts (Ind -6.5, 45.5)

Recommendation: Oakland +6.5 at 2.02

The overreaction following Andrew Luck’s injury has… not really materialized. It’s as if the general consensus instantly became that Indianapolis is still a good team, Jacoby Brissett is a serviceable quarterback, and the franchise as a whole will be fine. I agree with all of that, by the way, and the results so far have validated that line of thinking, as the Colts are 2-1 and tied for first in their division. But it’s also important to keep things in perspective: the two wins have come against the Titans and Falcons, two flawed teams, and have come by a combined 5 points. The loss came against the Chargers, a team that was supposed to be good but at this moment counts the win over Indianapolis as their only victory.

That’s not to say that the Colts haven’t been good, just that they’ve been far from dominant, and this week they’ll likely be without their best players on both sides of the ball, as All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, who led the NFL in tackles last season, has been ruled out with a concussion, while Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton is doubtful with a quad injury. The Raiders were noncompetitive in Minnesota last week, losing by 20, but they beat Denver in Week 1 and didn’t play as bad in a Week 2 loss to Kansas City as the final score indicated, as they actually held the Chiefs scoreless in 3 of 4 quarters– the first time that has happened to KC in the Patrick Mahomes era (we won’t talk about the 2nd quarter..). So if you’re viewing this game as “the Colts have a bad team coming to town that they can beat up on”, I think you may be surprised by Sunday’s game. Indianapolis doesn’t have the type of offense that can put teams away, while the Raiders might not be quite as bad as most think. I’ll gladly take the points.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Denver Broncos (Den -3, 37.5)

Recommendation: Denver -3 at 1.91

Minshew Mania has engulfed the city of Jacksonville, where I happen to reside, as memes, songs, and fan clubs have sprung up around the mustachioed 6th-round rookie who has played like a seasoned vet. It’s been impressive, for sure, but count me as one of those who expects the clock to strike midnight at some point relatively soon. And “some point” may be this week in Denver, where a hungry Broncos defense awaits. That defense was supposed to be one of the better units in the league this season, as defensive mastermind Vic Fangio was hired as head coach in the offseason with the idea that he would be able make a really good defense even better. He certainly has the talent on hand, and something tells me that Von Miller and Bradley Chubb’s “meet me at the quarterback” plan may come to fruition this week against the shaky Jacksonville o-line.

The Denver offense has struggled thus far, there’s no denying that, and the posted total of 37.5 should tell you what to expect here: an ugly, low-scoring slugfest. But the Broncos are starting to find some traction with the running game, as Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman combined for 149 rushing yards last week, and the Jacksonville defense, though talented, has been prone to meltdowns, missed assignments, and in-game finger-pointing. Plus, the Jags could be without star cornerback Jalen Ramsey this week, who has stayed away from practice and demanded a trade due to perceived “disrespect” from the front office. Really, the only thing that’s kept Jacksonville’s season from being the type of disaster that would make you question why any member of the coaching staff or front office is employed has been the play of Minshew, who has been poised, unafraid, and accurate. And if you think he’ll keep it going on the road in Denver this week, more power to you. But this is a circle-the-wagons, must-win type of situation for the Broncos, and they’re facing a bad offense led by a rookie quarterback. I like their chances.

Dallas Cowboys @ New Orleans Saints (Dal -2.5, 48)

Recommendation: Dallas -2.5 at 1.9

I can’t tell you exactly when New Orleans was last a home underdog, but I can tell you that it doesn’t happen often. The Saints have been tremendous in the Superdome throughout the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, and after seeing them win on the road in Seattle last week, many are salivating at the thought of backing them as a home ‘dog against a Dallas team that has yet to face a quality opponent. But with Brees now out of the picture, this is a completely different Saints team. Completely different. I saw someone on Twitter last week making the case for a Saints bet against Seattle, and they mentioned the value created by the market’s “overreaction” to Brees’s injury. After the Saints won, he took his victory lap, and I’m sure he wasn’t alone in thinking that he has correctly appraised the situation, and that maybe Brees’s injury wasn’t that big of a deal, after all.

This opinion could only come from someone who didn’t watch the game. (I sound like a bitter Seattle bettor, but I’m not– I stayed away from the game.) Fact is, the New Orleans offense with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm looked nothing like what we’re used to seeing from the Saints. Bridgewater threw for just 177 yards, and the offense as a whole finished with a mere 265 total yards, while the Seahawks piled up 514 (!). Turnovers, a special teams touchdown… this was how the Saints won the game. It was somewhat stunning to see a Sean Payton offense look so inept, and I’m not sure it’s going to get much better this week against an experienced Dallas defense that features perhaps the NFL’s best linebacking corps. On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys seem to have turned a corner under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, adding an explosive passing attack and aggressive play-calling to the downhill running of Ezekiel Elliott.  While it’s true that the schedule has been friendly, that will remain true after this week. These aren’t the Saints you’re accustomed to.