NFL WEEK 4: The first three weeks of the NFL season have featured plenty of head-scratching results, but none more so than Buffalo’s Week 3 victory in Minnesota as a 16.5-point ‘dog– the Bills had lost their first two games by 55 combined points, they were starting a rookie at quarterback and had been utterly hopeless on defense, and yet they thoroughly dominated a team that many regarded as a Super Bowl favorite heading into the season, in the process becoming the first team since 1995 to win a game as an underdog of 16 points or more.
Sometimes, early season results like that prove to be outliers, and what most would consider “normalcy” will return– that is, the teams that were supposed to be good turn out to be good, and vice-versa. But every year the NFL slips us a couple of surprises– i.e. the Jags and Rams last year– and many observers won’t know what hit them until Week 10 or 11, clinging to their preseason biases for months despite contradictory evidence. Take it from experience– that is not a profitable strategy.
Does this mean the Dolphins will go into Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots on Sunday, since they’ve indisputably been better thus far? Not necessarily, but I’ll tell you this: those who were sleeping on Miami prior to the season had better wake up. Same goes for people who thought the Rams were a one-year wonder, or who thought the Chiefs might suffer without Alex Smith at quarterback. We’ve seen three weeks’ worth of evidence on all these teams now, and failure to adapt to new realities can prove costly. Just a friendly word of advice.
We swept our three Sunday games last week, but we gave one back when “FitzMagic” ran out on Monday night (hasn’t stopped us from getting right back on the train, as you’ll see below). Still, it was good enough to bring us back to profitability for the season, and hopefully this week will bring more cheers. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Chicago Bears (Chi -3, 46.5)
Recommendation: Tampa Bay +3 at 2.02
As I type this, the whole world assumes that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the starting QB for the Bucs in Chicago on Sunday, and I make this pick with that in mind. I’ve seen some chortling about what may happen to “FitzMagic” this week, you know, the “if Pittsburgh had him rattled, wait til he meets Khalil Mack!” sort of thing, but I for one expect Fitz to light it up once again. I mean, he may not throw for 400 yards again (he’s already become the first QB in NFL history to top 400 yards passing in 3 consecutive games) and I’m sure Mack will make an impact, but I’m not sold on the Bears secondary– they were lit up by a hobbled Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, faced a Seattle team that was without top receiver Doug Baldwin in Week 2, and feasted on a terrible Arizona offense in Week 3. They haven’t been tested like they’ll be tested this week.
Plus, they could be down to four healthy cornerbacks if Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper are forced to sit— both are injured and have been unable to practice, so it looks like undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver may get his first career start. That sounds like a recipe for disaster against a Tampa receiving corps that has been among the league’s best through three weeks, with Chris Godwin’s emergence making it a true three-headed monster. And on the other side of the ball, Mitch Trubisky has been rather shaky, frequently missing open receivers and accounting for six turnovers ( 3 INTs, 3 fumbles) and just two passing touchdowns. The Chicago offense may be improved under first-year coach Matt Nagy, but it’s still not a unit that’s going to instill a whole lot of fear in anybody, and I have serious doubts about the Bears’ ability to keep pace with the high-flying Bucs on Sunday.
Cleveland Browns @ Oakland Raiders (Oak -2.5, 45)
Recommendation: Cleveland +2.5 at 1.99
The Browns picked up their first win since 2016 last week in a glorious debut for rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, who entered the game trailing 14-0 and went 17/23 for 201 yards— a statline that would’ve been even better had it not been for a couple of egregious drops. But it was much more than numbers— from the minute Mayfield took over for an injured and ineffective Tyrod Taylor, everything about the Cleveland offense changed. Yes, some of it was play-calling, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley went with some sets that were very reminiscent of Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offense, but Mayfield brought an undeniable energy and rhythm, continually getting the ball out quickly and on-target. He’s the man now— Browns coach Hue Jackson made it official this week— and while there are sure to be some struggles and bumps in the road, I don’t think he’ll face much resistance this week.
Forget the chatter about the “Black Hole” and all that– Mayfield will be facing an awful Oakland defense, and no screaming fans or West Coast jet-lag is going to change that. The Raiders are allowing 27.0 points per game, they’re last in the NFL in sacks, and their secondary has been atrocious, ranking next-to-last in pass defense DVOA, the stat that has become the go-to amongst analytics nerds and internet GMs. So if you were to draw up the ideal scenario for a first-time starting QB, it would look something like what Mayfield will be facing this week. His counterpart Derek Carr, meanwhile, will have to deal with a Browns defense that has far exceeded expectations thus far, surrendering 21 points or fewer in all three of their games despite facing the explosive Saints and Steelers offenses. Cleveland is the better team here, but the utter futility that has engulfed them over the past couple of years has made oddsmakers and bettors understandably gunshy. But I’m here to tell you: it’s Baker Mayfield’s time now, and the Browns are on their way up.
San Francisco 49ers @ L.A. Chargers (LA -10, 46.5)
Recommendation: L.A. -10 at 1.95
It’s difficult to overstate just how devastating the news of Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending torn ACL is for the 49ers, but it’s history now, and the team must turn back to C.J. Beathard, the second-year player who seems to have “journeyman backup” etched across his forehead. The Niners gave Beathard an extended look last year and it wasn’t pretty, as the offense averaged a shade under 13 ppg in the six games he started, as opposed to 27 ppg in four games with Garoppolo under center. And Beathard will arguably have less talent surrounding him now, with Carlos Hyde shipped off to Cleveland and Jerick McKinnon, his expected replacement, on injured reserve.
In other words, these Niners are just what the doctor ordered for a Chargers defense that has taken its lumps against some of the NFL’s best offenses, losing shootouts to the Chiefs and Rams. I expect Melvin Ingram & Co. to take full advantage of this prime “get well” opportunity— we saw last year that this L.A. defense seems to come alive when it senses blood in the water. That’s part of the reason why the Chargers are involved in so many lopsided games, with 7 of their past 10 wins coming by 9 points or more. The other reason they win big so often is because of their tremendous offense, a top-5 unit led by Philip Rivers but also featuring heavy contributions from the Melvin Gordon-led running game. The balanced and explosive Chargers should slice right through a Niners defense that is allowing nearly 30 points per game and will be without top cornerback Richard Sherman. I have a strong hunch we’ll see the Bolts notch their first double-digit victory of 2018.
Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals (Sea -3, 38.5)
Recommendation: Seattle -3 at 1.83
After an 0-3 start that included a dreadful 34-0 loss to the Rams in Week 2, the Cardinals have pulled the plug on the Sam Bradford experiment and are turning to rookie Josh Rosen, who made his NFL debut last Sunday in crunch time, with the Cards down 2 and needing a scoring drive to win. Rosen came up short, throwing an interception on a 4th-and-5 after driving the team to midfield, and he then threw another interception in the game’s closing seconds that was nullified by a penalty. I’m certainly not saying we should judge a young player based on a few plays in a highly-pressurized situation, but Rosen had turnover issues throughout his collegiate career at UCLA, with his “gunslinger” mentality leading him to make reckless throws on occasion.
This week, in his first career start, he’ll be going up against the league’s premier free safety in Seattle’s Earl Thomas, who had two interceptions in the Seahawks’ win over Dallas last week— a game in which Seattle allowed just 137 passing yards and sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott five times. This is a tough spot for Rosen, but the team is apparently ready to deal with the growing pains that are sure to be plentiful— starting on Sunday. As for the Seahawks, they’re surely itching to build off a much-needed Week 3 victory, and star wideout Doug Baldwin returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering a sprained knee in the season’s opening game, so it looks like Russell Wilson is going to have his top weapon back. Wilson could be in for a big day against an Arizona defense that ranks 25th in yards allowed and surrendered over 600 combined passing yards in the team’s first two games, and I think a Seattle blowout is much more likely than an Arizona win here.