Week 4 NFL picks: Packers-Bears, Lions-Jets, Eagles-49ers, more
A mere three weeks of the regular season is in the books and quarterback issues already are popping up everywhere. For a while there this week, it looked like all three of Florida’s NFL teams might be fielding a new starter in Week 4, with rookie Blake Bortles taking over in Jacksonville for the benched Chad Henne, Mike Glennon replacing the injured Josh McCown in Tampa Bay and Ryan Tannehill perhaps giving way to his backup, Matt Moore, in Miami. Tannehill apparently has hung on to his job for now, but it’s clear he has been put on notice.
If Tennessee does the expected and subs in Charlie Whitehurst for the injured Jake Locker this Sunday at Indianapolis, that’ll make it seven teams using two starting quarterbacks in the season’s first month, with the other injury-related moves being in St. Louis, with Shaun Hill and Austin Davis; Arizona, with Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton; Washington, with Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins; and Minnesota, with Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater.
The starting debuts of Bortles and Bridgewater will draw most of the attention this week, and with Oakland’s Derek Carr already elevated to the No. 1 job late in the preseason, the quarterback draft class of 2014 has largely found its way onto the field. Who’s missing? Just that guy in Cleveland, the one most folks thought would be the first rookie to secure a starting gig. Alas, Johnny Manziel’s time has yet to come.
• Last week: 10-6; Season: 30-18 (.625).
• Best pick in Week 3: Seattle 31, Denver 23 (actual score Seattle 26-20, OT)
• Worst pick in Week 3: Miami 27, Kansas City 17 (actual score Kansas City 34-15).
Below are my Week 4 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between the New York Giants and Washington.
Yes, the Packers started each of the past two seasons at 1-2, and still rallied to win the NFC North both years. So in that light, Aaron Rodgers telling Packers fans to chill has a ring of validity to it. It’s not likely that anyone in the division is going to run away with things this season, and Green Bay has been well served in the past by not going into panic mode and overreacting to a small sampling of results. That said, the Packers have always been able to rely on their high-powered passing game even when the rest of the team is struggling, and that’s simply not the case at the moment. Rodgers’ stats are mediocre by his standards, Eddie Lacy has been a shell of his rookie self and the lack of tight end production has been glaring. With Chicago fresh off consecutive road wins at San Francisco and the Jets, let’s see if the Bears can flash some killer instinct at home and open up a two-game lead on their arch rivals after the first month of the season. At 1-3, it’ll get even harder for Packers Nation to remember their relaxation techniques.
Kind of a shame we’re not getting a Mario Williams versus Jadeveon Clowney storyline out of this game, as the ex-Texans No. 1 overall pick faces off against the club that selected the currently injured Clowney in the top spot this season. Guess we’ll have to settle for the Ryan Fitzpatrick Bowl, as the ex-Bills starting quarterback gets the chance to show Buffalo he’s still capable of whatever it is that prompted that franchise to lavish him with a six-year, $59 million contract extension in mid-season of 2011. As we saw in last week’s loss to the Giants, the Texans are a different team when they don’t have Arian Foster to carry the load on offense. Asking Fitzpatrick to do too much is not the formula that will work for Houston. Both clubs started a surprising 2-0 before coming back to earth last week, but the Texans will regain some altitude in Week 4 and surpass their win total for 2013.
No matter who’s playing quarterback for the Colts -- Peyton Manning, Dan Orlovsky or Andrew Luck -- Indianapolis owns the Titans, having beaten them five times in a row and going 10-1 against their division rivals dating back to 2008. Tennessee raised some hopes with that crisp Week 1 upset at Kansas City, but the Titans have been thumped to the tune of 59-17 in their past two games, and now quarterback Jake Locker is hurt yet again, nursing a wrist injury that might require a relief start from veteran backup Charlie Whitehurst. Another couple of losses, and it might soon be Zach Mettenberger time in Tennessee, with Locker era effectively ended.
At times it still seems like Rex Ryan hasn’t been on the job in New York all that long, but you might be surprised to learn he already owns the third-most wins of any head coach in the team’s checkered history, with his 47 victories (he’s 47-42 overall) trailing only Weeb Ewbank (73-78-6) and Joe Walton (54-59-1). And Rex is only one of three Jets head coaches with a winning record, joining Bill Parcells (30-20) and Al Groh (9-7) on that comically short list. Ryan, however, may not add much to that career victory total in New York if he doesn’t get better quarterbacking out of Geno Smith. The shaky 2013 vintage version of Geno showed up during their home loss on Monday night to Chicago, and if we see another week of that, the drumbeat for Michael Vick will drown out everything in New York, including the sound of any votes of confidence issued on Geno’s behalf. It’s win-now-or-else time already for the Jets.
Nice touch by donning the goggles this week, DeAngelo Williams. With the Panthers headed for Baltimore and a reunion/revenge game with longtime former Carolina receiver Steve "Blood and Guts" Smith, maybe the whole team should be similarly out-fitted. But the hiccups and giggles will end on Sunday at 1 p.m., because Smith craves the ball this week, itching for a chance to prove to Carolina that it parted ways with him at least one year too soon. It’s hard to imagine Smith being even more motivated that his usual combustible self, but it’ll be fun to see what that looks like. If I’m Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, I’m targeting Smith at every possible opportunity, throwing in his direction early, often and continuously. Here’s guessing Smith’s statement game is delivered at the top of his lungs.
In Week 3, the Bucs re-visited their embarrassing expansion-era past and could not have looked much worse against Atlanta, while the Steelers could do no wrong in Carolina. So this is perfectly set up for Tampa Bay to mount a stunning upset in Pittsburgh, right? Not happening. The Bucs may find their stride at some point during head coach Lovie Smith’s first season in Tampa Bay, because they have way too much talent to keep looking this pathetic. But it won’t be this week, against a Steelers team that is starting to pound away with its two-headed rushing tandem of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrett Blount. Tampa Bay’s passing game might actually get a modest boost with the efficient Mike Glennon starting in place of the injured and ineffective Josh McCown, but not enough to make a difference in the outcome, as another winless September will conclude in Tampa Bay. And don’t look now, Bucs fans, but October begins with that always challenging trip to New Orleans.
Whatever Miami’s Joe Philbin was trying to accomplish this week with his playing-coy-on-the-starting quarterback exercise, it seems only to have shifted most of the focus from Ryan Tannehill’s questionable playing performance to Philbin’s questionable coaching tactics. Way to go, Joe. If you were trying to motivate your quarterback, you might have instead alienated him. And created a big enough distraction for your team in the process that you felt the need to apologize for it. A win at Wembley will staunch the bleeding in the short term, but this is a cracks-in-the-foundation type of story that may resurface later this season in Miami, so stay tuned.
The Chargers are quickly proving last year’s late-season success was no fluke, but there are troubling injury issues that could complicate the chances of San Diego making another playoff run. Center Nick Hardwick and running back Danny Woodhead are gone for the season, and lead running back Ryan Mathews has been sidelined indefinitely by a MCL knee strain. That’s shifts most of the backfield burden on ex-Colt Donald Brown, who averaged just 2.0 yards per rush despite carrying 31 times in last week’s win at Buffalo. The Chargers’ running game is averaging a league-low 2.43 yards per carry, and that kind of showing over the long haul would tax Philip Rivers and the passing game, and lead to San Diego becoming too one-dimensional on offense. But with the reeling Jaguars in town this week, the Chargers don’t even need offensive balance to improve to 3-1 and take over sole possession of first place in the AFC West.
It sounds alarmist, but if the free-falling 49ers don’t find a way to beat the undefeated Eagles this week, the season could unravel in a hurry in San Francisco. The 49ers aren’t recognizable so far in 2014, with their league-worst 36 penalties for 303 yards, and being outscored 52-3 in the second half of games. The 49ers have blown significant second-half leads against Chicago and Arizona the past two weeks and here comes a Philadelphia team that has owned the second half, producing almost 25 points per game after halftime. The resilience and discipline San Francisco has been known for under coach Jim Harbaugh has gone glaringly absent, and that’s why the 49ers will be desperately trying to stave off the first three-game losing streak of his four-year tenure. I expect that desperation to produce results this week, and it’s going to get ugly if things go otherwise.
Given the Falcons have become a dome-sweet-dome team once again, losing eight of their past nine games on the road, I was tempted to take Minnesota in a show of faith that Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is ready for his close-up. It’s not Bridgewater making his first career start that gave me pause. I think he’ll be up to the challenge. But how much can he really compensate for with no Adrian Peterson, no Kyle Rudolph and now starting right guard Brandon Fusco also injured and lost for the season? Unless Cordarrelle Patterson has a break-out game, the Vikings simply don’t have the firepower to match scores with Atlanta’s top-ranked offense. If the Falcons can’t handle a Minnesota team that’s at far less than full strength, and still getting used to its temporary home stadium, I’m not sure there’s any road environment they’ll prosper in.
It was in Week 10 of last season, in a game I covered, that Dallas put on one of the worst defensive performances in NFL history, giving up a team-record 625 yards of offense and a league-record 40 first downs to the Saints in a 49-17 loss to New Orleans. I’ll never forget the shell-shocked look on the face of then-Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s as he walked by me headed for the press box elevator in the post-game. It was the look of a coach completely out of answers. It’s Rod Maranelli’s defense in Dallas now. He’ll have his Cowboys more prepared for Drew Brees and the Saints than they were that night last November, but it still won’t be enough. The Cowboys defense isn’t facing the likes of Jake Locker or Austin Davis this week.
Monday, Sept. 29
If you’re a fan of coaching match-ups, this one at least deserves its primetime showcase-game billing. Now in his 16th season as an NFL head coach, Kansas City’s Andy Reid has never beaten a Bill Belichick-coached club, going 0-4 head to head, including the big one 10 years back, Philadelphia’s three-point loss to New England in Super Bowl 39. The Chiefs aren’t a likely candidate to end Reid’s slide against Belichick, but then, I didn’t give them much of a chance to win last week at Miami, and they dominated the Dolphins, winning by 19. Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game isn’t striking much fear in the hearts of their opponents this season, but I’ve got a feeling New England’s Rob Gronkowski has a monster game coming as he gets fully re-integrated into the flow of the offense.