NFL WEEK 5: We’re a quarter of the way through the NFL’s regular season, and all anybody seems to want to talk about is offense— more points have been scored through 4 weeks than ever before, there have been more 250+ yard passing games than ever before, and the average QB rating among the league’s starting signal callers is higher than Joe Montana’s career rating, which was once the highest in NFL history. In other words, the rule changes that have emphasized scoring seem to be working, so I’m pretty sure all those complaints about the increase in roughing-the-passer calls are falling on deaf ears at league headquarters. Scoring is up, TV ratings are up, the star QBs are mostly healthy… all is good.
Week 5 features several intriguing matchups, highlighted by Jacksonville’s visit to Kansas City and a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship game in Philly. I haven’t had a strong enough feeling on either of those games to warrant action, but I do think the Jags have a good shot at pulling off the mild upset and are a decent value on the moneyline at a price like 2.32.
As for my favorite games on this week’s slate, here’s what I’m thinking:
Atlanta Falcons @ Pittsburgh Steelers (Pit -3, 50)
Recommendation: Atlanta +3 at 2.08
Both of these teams entered the season as Super Bowl favorites, they both feature powerful offenses and vulnerable defenses, and they’re both desperate for a win, having won just one game each thus far. The problems in Atlanta are pretty straightforward, as the Falcons have been hit hard by injuries on both sides of the ball, but especially in the defensive backfield, where they’ve lost three starters. As a result, their prolific offense is under constant pressure to score, and even when Matt Ryan & Co. produce, it still isn’t enough sometimes. Case in point: over their past two games the Falcons scored 80 combined points and lost both times.
The Steelers have had similar issues on defense, surrendering 95 combined points in their past three games, but unlike Atlanta, their offense has struggled to find consistency and is beset by finger-pointing and general discontent. Le’Veon Bell’s holdout and Antonio Brown’s sideline outbursts are well-documented, but what hasn’t been discussed as much are the difficulties that first-year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has had in replacing Todd Haley. Until Bell returns, I’m just not sure Fichtner has any “secret sauce” that will juice up the offense, and the problems on defense are intractable. With Pro Bowl tailback Devonta Freeman returning for Atlanta this week and rookie wideout Calvin Ridley emerging as a legitimate weapon opposite Julio Jones, the Falcons offense is downright scary and should pose serious problems for these Steelers. I know betting against Big Ben at Heinz Field is always a little nerve-wracking, especially when he’s facing a porous defense, but in this instance I believe it’s the right call.
New York Giants @ Carolina Panthers (Car -6.5, 44)
Recommendation: Under 44 at 1.89
The always-unpredictable Giants are 1-3, and all anybody wants to talk about is the offense— Eli Manning is over the hill, Odell Beckham isn’t worth the money, Saquon Barkley isn’t getting enough carries, the play-calling isn’t creative enough, etc. And while there may be elements of truth in all of those criticisms, the intense focus on the New York offense has obscured something important: the defense is playing very well thus far, especially the secondary, which is allowing fewer than 230 pass yards per game and has surrendered just 4 touchdown passes— tops in the NFC and behind only Jacksonville for the league lead.
Considering Carolina ranks 25th in passing offense, averaging a mere 204 yards per game through the air, you would expect the New York D to make life difficult for Cam Newton and force the Panthers to grind out long drives. But on the other side of the ball, there’s no hiding the problems— the G-Men rank 25th in total offense and an embarrassing 29th in points scored, producing just 18.3 ppg. Last week they had a home game against a New Orleans defense that ranked last in the NFL in points allowed by a wide margin, and they managed just 18 points and 299 total yards. Now they go on the road to face a Carolina D that is surrendering fewer than 15 ppg this season and will be rested and ready after a Week 4 bye. This has all the hallmarks of an ugly, low-scoring game, and though points are being scored at a record pace in the NFL this season, I think they’ll be relatively hard to come by in Charlotte on Sunday.
Arizona Cardinals @ San Francisco 49ers (SF -4, 40.5)
Recommendation: San Francisco -4 at 1.99
It seemed all hope was lost in San Francisco once Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, but if last week was any indication, the C.J. Beathard experience may not be as bad as once feared. Beathard looked more confident and capable in a narrow loss to the Chargers than he did at any point last season, which, in fairness, was his rookie season. He sliced up a talented L.A. defense for 298 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and frankly the offense didn’t seem to miss a beat with the quarterback change. The yardage numbers even improved, as Garoppolo had thrown for 260 yards or fewer in each of the team’s first three games.
Beathard has a golden opportunity to keep it going this week against an Arizona secondary that has been very disappointing thus far, ranking in the bottom-five of the league in interceptions, passes defended, and yards per attempt. And the Cardinals have been even worse against the run, surrendering more rushing yards than every team but Detroit, so 49er backs Matt Breida and Alfred Morris should be able to do some damage. Where San Francisco has problems is on defense, but fortunately for them they’ll be facing an Arizona offense that has been far and away the worst in the NFL this season, ranking dead last in both yards per game (208.5) and points per game (9.3). The Cards are rolling with rookie QB Josh Rosen now, so they’re truly a team in “developmental” mode, while the Niners strike me as a team that has more of a win-now focus. I don’t think this game will be particularly close.
Dallas Cowboys @ Houston Texans (Hou -3, 45.5)
Recommendation: Houston -3 at 1.83
Houston pulled out a much-needed win in Indianapolis last week after Colts coach Frank Reich made an inexplicable 4th-down call late in overtime that allowed the Texans to get the ball back in plus-territory and eventually kick the winning field goal. It may have been a season-saving result for Bill O’Brien’s crew, as they now return home for back-to-back winnable games against Dallas and Buffalo. Of course, I’m sure the Cowboys view this game as eminently “winnable” as well, and they should, but I’m a little concerned about the state of America’s Team.
The offense has been really bad, ranking 27th in total yards per game and 30th in points scored, as only the Bills (12.5 ppg) and Cardinals (9.3 ppg) are producing fewer points than the 16.8 per game that Dallas has managed. The one bright spot has been the Ezekiel Elliott-led rushing attack, but Zeke faces a tough matchup here, as the talented Houston front seven has allowed just 3.5 yards per rush— 4th best in the league. And though the Dallas defense has held up well so far, star linebacker Sean Lee will likely miss his second consecutive game with a hamstring injury, and over the past few years very few defensive players have had as much of an impact on their team’s success as Lee. The Houston offense is coming off an explosive performance in which they hung 37 points and 466 total yards on the Colts, so this feels like a really dangerous spot for a Dallas D that is missing its best player. I’ll take the home team here.