NFL WEEK 8: We’re approaching the best part of the NFL season– we’ve seen enough of every team to give us at least a general idea what they’re like, and we think we can separate the good teams from the bad, but it’s still early enough so that nearly every team still has a chance (that’s nearly every team, with apologies to Miami and Washington). The trade deadline is on Tuesday, meaning rosters will be essentially set in just a few days, and we haven’t yet reached the part of the season where we have to start worrying about effort levels, “tanking” (again, apologies to Miami), and teams resting their best players to get a look at the younger guys. No, as of right now– Week 8– every team is putting its best foot forward, and just about anything can happen. It’s a great time to be a fan.
And you would like to think that this time of the year is when our prognostication skills are the sharpest– oftentimes that’s been the case for me personally. However, after last week’s bloodbath, punctuated by a Patriots Monday night blowout that made Jets bettors (ahem, me) feel like absolute fools who just enjoy giving money away, we were forced to look upon this week’s slate with humble eyes. Let’s hope we’ve avoided the potholes and can return to profitability with these four:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Tennessee Titans (TEN -2.5, 45.5)
Recommendation: Tennessee -2.5 at 1.93
Okay, I managed to stay away for one week. As longtime readers of this column know, I’ve always had a higher opinion of Ryan Tannehill than most– he began his college career as a wide receiver, so even a couple of years into his NFL career he was still learning the quarterback position, and his tenure in Miami was marked by hard-luck injuries and questionable surrounding talent. When he bottomed out last year, “Tannehill is awful” became the general consensus, and I essentially slunk off into my corner on the subject. But when the Tennessee Titans announced prior to last week’s game that they were benching the ineffective Marcus Mariota and turning to Tannehill, I heard that old voice pop up again– “He’s better than these people think! His team is undervalued.”
So it took considerable strength to avoid backing the Titans last week, and though the game was crazy and the Titans looked sure to lose at a couple of different points, Tannehill was terrific, throwing for 312 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Tennessee’s 23-20 win. And if you thought I was going to stay away this week, with Tampa’s league-worst passing defense coming to town, then buddy, you’d better think again. And yes, I know the Bucs have been improving on offense– they’ve scored 24 points or more in four straight games, and they have one of the league’s more dangerous wideout tandems in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But Jameis Winston has been as mistake-prone as ever– he threw 5 INTs in his last outing, giving him 10 through just six games– and the strength of the Tennessee defense is in the secondary. Then there’s the Tampa defense, a unit that has been stout against the run but is allowing a staggering 304.5 pass yards per game, last in the league by a wide margin. Look for Tannehill to have another big game here in leading the Titans to their second home win of the season.
New York Jets @ Jacksonville Jaguars (JAX -6.5, 40.5)
Recommendation: New York +6.5 at 1.98
The tough thing about backing a side that you feel is a contrarian side is that oftentimes when it doesn’t work out, you feel like a special kind of idiot. Like, what did you think was going to happen? Such was my predicament last Monday night, when I essentially flushed my money down the toilet by backing the Jets against longtime nemesis New England. It was such a thorough domination, and it was so clear from the beginning what was happening, that it made you feel uniquely stupid. Like, you’ve been watching football your whole life, and that’s what you come up with? Backing the Jets against the Patriots? Perhaps it’s time for a long walk in the woods, or a cut-rate lobotomy. Anything to clear whatever slate led you to make such an atrocious bet.
So what kind of person bets on the Jets again the very next week? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot over the past few days, and I’m sure my wife would give you a more colorful answer than I can come up with. But the more I look at this game, the more I like this spot for New York: Jacksonville is really banged-up on defense, particularly at the linebacker position, and Minshew Mania seems to be a thing of the past, as the sixth-round rookie has completed fewer than 50% of his passes for a total of 418 yards, with one touchdown and one interception over his last two games– and one of those performances (last week’s, as a matter of fact) came against the atrocious Cincinnati defense. I have a feeling that Gregg Williams will have a few things cooked up for Minshew this week, and I expect the Jacksonville offense to struggle in what is a great bounce-back spot for the New York D. If the Jets can protect Sam Darnold, he has a chance to do some damage against a Jacksonville secondary that isn’t as good as it has been over the past couple of years, and the injuries at linebacker will make corralling Le’Veon Bell a real challenge for the Jaguars defense. I think the Jets have a good shot at pulling the upset here and I’m fairly enthusiastic about them as 6.5-point ‘dogs.
Carolina Panthers @ San Francisco 49ers (SF -5.5, 42)
Recommendation: Carolina +5.5 at 1.9
Looking at the schedule prior to the season, precisely no one would have guessed that Carolina’s visit to San Francisco would be Week 8’s marquee matchup. But that’s where we’re at, as the 49ers are one of only two remaining unbeaten teams (New England being the other), and the Panthers are riding a 4-game winning streak that coincides with quarterback Kyle Allen being inserted into the starting lineup. Yes, the Carolina offense still goes through Christian McCaffrey to a degree that’s almost unprecedented in the NFL, but Allen unquestionably provides something that Cam Newton– at least, the hobbled version of Cam Newton that we saw for the season’s first two games– could not: the ability to accurately deliver the ball downfield. For the season, Allen is completing over 65% of his passes, has not had a single game where he’s averaged fewer than 6 yards per attempt, and has a 7/0 TD to INT ratio.
The San Francisco defense will present the stiffest challenge that Allen and the Panthers have faced this season: the Niners rank second in the league in yards per game allowed, and have surrendered a grand total of 10 points in their last three games COMBINED. No matter the competition, that is awfully impressive. Offensively, though, there’s not a whole lot to get excited about– the Jimmy Garoppolo-led offense produced all of 9 points against the struggling Washington defense last week, and Garoppolo is averaging just 214.5 pass yards per game, which is fewer than every team in the NFC with the exception of Chicago and Washington (yikes!). And while much of the talk leading into this game has been focused on the San Francisco defense, the Panthers boast a top-5 defense of their own, one that leads the NFL in sacks despite playing only 6 games (most teams have already played 7, and Minnesota and Washington have played 8) and is limiting opposing QBs to a 73.2 passer rating. That defense will have had an extra week to prepare for the San Francisco offense, as the Panthers are coming off a bye, and I fully expect them to make life really, really difficult for Garoppolo and Co. In what should be a hard-hitting, low-scoring type of game, 5.5 points just feels like too many.
Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers (PIT -14, 43.5)
Recommendation: Miami +14 at 1.97
So coming off of last Monday night’s Jets debacle, we’ve decided to atone by backing… (checks notes)… Miami on Monday night this week! Nothing like betting on an 0-6 team on the road against a team that badly needs the win, am I right?? Seriously, though: the Dolphins have quietly begun to show signs of life over the past two weeks, dropping a 17-16 heartbreaker to Washington in Week 6 and then going up to Buffalo last week and putting up a decent fight against the 5-1 Bills before eventually losing 31-21. Competitive losses may not sound like much to celebrate, but when you lose your first four games by a combined score of 163-26, it’s difficult not to frame the last two performances in a positive light.
The subtle shift in competence has everything to do with the quarterback position: trailing the Redskins 17-3 in the 4th quarter two weeks ago, Brian Flores mercifully benched Josh Rosen, the worst quarterback you can think of who still somehow draws fan/analyst support (“Rosen has never been given a fair shake!”, they’ll be screaming as he tosses yet another interception in an Arena League game three years from now), and re-inserted veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in the lineup. The offense promptly sprung to life, scoring two 4th-quarter touchdowns, and only a missed 2-point conversion prevented the Fins from picking up their first win of the season. Last week was similarly encouraging, as the Dolphins traveled to Buffalo and held the lead entering the 4th quarter, with Fitzpatrick finishing 23/35 for 283 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT against what is perhaps the NFL’s best defense. There’s no reason to think that Fitz and the offense won’t keep it going against a middle-of-the-pack Steelers defense that has surrendered 24 points or more in 4 of 6 games this season. And there’s simply not much good you can say about the Pittsburgh offense– they produce just 276.5 total yards per game, 28th in the league, and the passing attack has been particularly nonthreatening, with QB Mason Rudolph averaging a mere 161.5 pass yards per game. Nothing about this Steelers team suggests that they should be a 14-point favorite over anybody right now, particularly against a team that is coming off its best two performances of the season. My advice is to hold your nose and back the Fins here.