NFL WEEK 9: The NFL’s trade deadline came and went on Tuesday, but not without some action, as two Pro Bowl wideouts– Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Detroit’s Golden Tate– were dealt for draft picks. Thomas went to Houston, a team that was badly in need of a receiver to play opposite DeAndre Hopkins after Will Fuller was lost for the season last week, and Tate went to the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, who figure to be a dangerous team down the stretch after some tough losses early.
There were other deadline moves as well– the Rams continued their all-in push by acquiring pass-rushing specialist Dante Fowler III from Jacksonville in exchange for two picks, and the Redskins bolstered an already-strong secondary with the acquisition of ex-Packer HaHa Clinton-Dix.
So the stage is set, the weather is cooling down, and the playoff races are beginning to take shape: should be a fun second-half of the season.
But then I’m reminded of something my Little League baseball coach once told me: the goal is to have fun, but it’s not fun unless you win. Truer words have never been spoken, and we’ve been having a lot of fun lately, as we’re 7-1 on our past eight selections (9-2-1 over the past three weeks) and are firmly back in black after hitting a rough patch a few weeks back. Let’s hope we can keep it rolling with these four:
Atlanta Falcons @ Washington Redskins (Was -1, 48)
Recommendation: Atlanta moneyline at 2.04
The Skins have been one of the league’s pleasant surprises so far this season, winning 5 of their first 7 games to assume control of the NFC East. Watching them play over the past few weeks, however, it’s hard not to notice that the offense really seems to be slowing down, producing 23 points or fewer in each of the team’s past four games. It’s easy to pin the blame on Alex Smith returning to his “Checkdown Charlie” ways, but the truth is Smith doesn’t have a whole lot to work with in terms of skill-position talent, as veteran running back Adrian Peterson (or what’s left of him, anyway) has probably been the team’s best offensive player this season.
Atlanta, meanwhile, has no such problems on offense– Julio Jones is still one of the most feared weapons in the league, and the emergence of rookie wideout Calvin Ridley has added an explosive element to a passing attack that had become stale following ex-OC Kyle Shanahan’s departure. Matt Ryan currently ranks second in the NFL with 318 pass yards per game, and he may be just getting revved up, as he threw for 734 combined yards in the team’s last two games, both victories. The Falcons have now clawed back to 3-4 after a terrible start to the season, and they’re coming off a bye, so they should be well-prepared for what is a huge game for them. I’m just not sure the Redskins have enough firepower to keep pace here– I realize the Atlanta defense is vulnerable, but the only time the Skins have topped 24 points this season was in their 31-17 victory over the Packers way back in Week 3. I just don’t think their usual offensive output will be good enough in this situation, and I haven’t seen much evidence that they have another gear. Gimme the Falcons on the moneyline.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Baltimore Ravens (Bal -2.5, 47)
Recommendation: Baltimore -2.5 at 1.87
It’s gut-check time for the Ravens after an ugly Week 8 loss in Carolina, their third defeat in their past four games. But it’s important to put things in perspective— prior to last week they took the 6-1 Saints down to the wire before losing 24-23, and their previous game was a 21-0 victory over a decent Tennessee team. The defense still leads the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed, and the offense has produced 21 points or more in 7 of the team’s 8 games this season. The sky isn’t falling, in other words. Even last week’s loss wasn’t as one-sided as the scoreboard would suggest– three Baltimore turnovers were what turned it into a rout.
Back in Week 4 this Ravens team went up to Pittsburgh and cruised to a relatively easy 26-14 win, and though the Steelers seem to have some momentum now, the same issues that plagued them the first time around will trouble them here— namely, their defensive backs can’t stay with Baltimore’s cadre of receivers (Joe Flacco threw for 363 yards in the first meeting), and the Baltimore defense is as adept as any unit in the league at neutralizing the Steelers offense. Their formula is simple: crowd the line of scrimmage and take away the running game, double-team Antonio Brown consistently, and make the other guys beat you. Back in Week 4 James Connor rushed 9 times for 19 yards, Brown caught 5 passes for 62, and the offensive stars for Pittsburgh were guys like Ryan Switzer and Vance McDonald, who combined for 12 receptions. That’s how you do it, and we can expect a similar game plan this time around. Look for the Ravens to bounce back from a bad performance with a much-needed win over their arch rival.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Carolina Panthers (Car -6, 54.5)
Recommendation: Tampa Bay +6 at 1.99
FitzMagic is back! After becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 yards or more in three consecutive games earlier this season, Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was benched in favor of supposed franchise QB Jameis Winston a few weeks back, but Winston’s persistent turnover issues have been a major factor in the team’s decline over the past month, so after his 4th interception last week and with the Bucs trailing 34-16, head coach Dirk Koetter turned back to Fitzpatrick. He responded by throwing for 194 yards and two touchdowns in a little more than a quarter of action, leading a near-miraculous comeback that only fell short when Cincinnati’s Randy Bullock kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired. Now he’s back in the saddle, having been named the starter once again, and he has at his disposal one of the NFL’s very best receiving corps.
The Panthers have been playing good football lately, but they’ve shown vulnerability in the secondary– they rank in the bottom-half of the league in pass yards allowed and opposing quarterbacks have posted a rating of 90.4 against them, so Fitzpatrick should have room to operate. Of course, the Bucs will need to score and score plenty, as their defense is among the NFL’s worst, but Carolina has a run-first offense (2nd in rush ypg, 22nd in pass ypg) and the Bucs are actually a top-10 run defense, surrendering just 96.9 rushing yards per game. The return of All-Pro tackle Gerald McCoy– a true wrecking-ball on the interior of the line– will certainly help as well. Cam Newton is sure to connect on a few big plays against a bad Tampa secondary, but, rest assured, so will Fitzpatrick— the Bucs are well-equipped to go blow-for-blow if this one turns into a shootout. And really, just about every one of their games this season has been a shootout, and with the exception of Week 4 in Chicago, they’ve either managed to win, or they’ve lost by 5 points or fewer. I believe they should be backed enthusiastically here as a 6-point ‘dog.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Seattle Seahawks (LA -1, 47.5)
Recommendation: Seattle moneyline at 2.0
Many people are eyeing the Chargers in this spot, as they’ve won 4 straight games and are coming off a bye. But this feels like the type of game that Philip Rivers teams have historically lost— a road game against a tough, hard-nosed opponent with a ball-hawking secondary and an offense that’s going to pound the ball and attempt to control time of possession. Remember, the L.A. defense has struggled against the run this season: they’re allowing 4.3 yards per carry and better than 106 rush yards per game, a figure that would be considerably uglier had the Chargers not opened up big leads in a few of their games, forcing the opposition to abandon the run. In their last game, for instance, a 20-19 victory over Tennessee, they allowed a Titans rushing attack that had been one of the worst in the NFL this season to pile up 164 yards on 33 carries. Stopping a team that’s committed to running the ball and does it well– a team like Seattle– is going to be a challenge.
The Seahawks have really turned a corner after two disappointing losses to start the season, winning 4 of their last 5 by returning to the run-first, grind-it-out style that was the team’s hallmark when they were contending for Super Bowls. Russell Wilson has attempted 26 passes or fewer in all four of Seattle’s victories— just 17 attempts last week!— and the ‘Hawks rank 5th in the league in rushing at nearly 135 ypg. And though the defense may not be the Legion of Boom anymore, it’s a unit that is allowing just 219 pass yards per game, 4th-best in the NFL, and is limiting opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 82.8, ranking second in that category. They should be able to put up a fight against Rivers, at the very least. This just feels like a tough spot for the Chargers— I’m on the home team here.