Last week in the NFL definitely was not the week you want to own the picks column. From Kansas City’s fourth-quarter meltdown on Thursday night to the Colts’ total no-show in their Monday-night loss to the Jets, it was a rather unpredictable series of events.
I’m sure I’ve had sub-.500 weeks before in the picking business, but I really can’t remember when. My 7–9 showing was a humbling affair, but I wasn’t alone in that lowly state and a week filled with upsets is one of the many reasons the NFL defies mastery. We really don’t know what’s coming next. As the preseason ended, we thought we had something of a handle on teams like the Eagles, Saints, Ravens, Seahawks and Colts, but apparently we were misinformed.
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For that reason, I’m not inclined to feel really sorry for NFL kickers about now, those poor souls who have seen their point-after success rate sink to a mere 94.1% through the first two weeks of the season. That’s down more than five percent from last year’s 99.3 conversion rate, when the kicks were still 15 yards shorter. Five percent may seem like a lot to a kicker, but once you’ve sunk below .500 for a week of picking NFL games, it’s a trifling.
Here’s to a return to a semblance of normalcy in Week 3, as September football draws to a close. I don’t foresee seven home teams losing again this week as occurred last week. But it’s the NFL, so you never know anything for certain.
• Last week: 7–9; Season: 18–14 (.563).
• Best pick in Week 2: Carolina 20, Houston 13 (actual score: Panthers 24–17).
• Worst pick in Week 2: Tennessee 27, Cleveland 13 (actual score: Browns 28–14).
Careful there, Chuck Pagano. I well remember the last time a ticked off Colts head coach publicly aired out his quarterback in a post-game press conference, and it didn’t end well for Jim Mora. It was late November 2001, and Mora blasted Peyton Manning for throwing four interceptions in a blowout loss at home to San Francisco. Three days later, I showed up for a Manning conference call with Baltimore-area media and asked Peyton if what Mora said bothered him? Manning went off on a three-minute rant that included the words “you’re damn right it bothers me,” later admitting he and Mora had not spoken to one another in the three days since. Mora attempted, like Pagano did this week, to backtrack on his criticism of his quarterback, but he was dismissed at the end of that 6–10 season, and hasn’t coached since. You can’t like the vibe in Indianapolis right now, and with one more loss things could get really ugly. That makes this a hugely critical game if the Colts are indeed going to right the ship and calm everyone’s nerves. At least Indianapolis is back playing against the AFC South, where they are 16–2 since Andrew Luck and Pagano showed up in 2012. After facing a pair of Heisman winners the past two weeks in Jameis Winston (2013) and Johnny Manziel ('12), Titans rookie QB Marcus Mariota has to settle this time for Luck, the two-time Heisman runner-up, in 2010 and '11.
The Ravens just ventured west to Denver in Week 1 and to Oakland in Week 2, losing both. Coming up in Weeks 6 and 7, Baltimore heads back west, traveling to Arizona and then San Francisco. The Ravens were a chic Super Bowl pick by many, but it’s not a good sign that John Harbaugh’s team is struggling out West, given that the Super Bowl will be played in Santa Clara this season. The Bengals have dominated Baltimore lately, winning four of their past five meetings, but almost every game has been decided by seven points or fewer. If the Ravens are going to be seriously involved in the AFC North race this season, they have to find a way to get this one, and not find themselves trailing Cincinnati by three games as October approaches.
Try wrapping your head around this statistic Saints fans: From the four-plus-year stretch between Week 7 of 2010 through Week 9 of '14, New Orleans went 27–6 at home in the Superdome, twice posting perfect home records in that span, in '11 and again in '13. But New Orleans has matched those six losses at home in its past six games in the dome, a mind-boggling streak that started with a Week 10 overtime loss to San Francisco last season. The Saints had an 11-game home winning streak going until that loss to the 49ers, but they haven’t won since. Maybe going on the road to Charlotte to play the first-place Panthers is what Sean Payton’s club needs about now. But I doubt it.
It’s not a reason to go printing up playoff tickets, but either the Raiders or Browns are going to close out September with a winning record, and that’s at least a start for two of the league’s perennial losers. I’m on record saying Cleveland should stick with Johnny Manziel at quarterback, but when Josh McCown is right, he can get the job done as well. No more helicopter dives, Josh. You’re no John Elway.
Dallas got the win at Philadelphia, but in the process it lost more than any other team in Week 2 thanks to Tony Romo’sbroken left collarbone. And while I think the Cowboys might be able to piece things together with a combination of Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel at quarterback, I don’t think the new arrangement in Dallas is going to get off to a winning start against a 2-0 Atlanta team that has early season mojo under rookie coach Dan Quinn. The Falcons are two for two in fourth-quarter comebacks, and Matt Ryan and Julio Jones should be able to inflict serious damage on that underwhelming Cowboys secondary.
The Texans have lost to Kansas City and Carolina and there’s no real shame there. But that also means Bill O’Brien’s club has to be able to deal with the likes of Tampa Bay, which played surprising well in winning at New Orleans last week. The Texans’ talented defensive front will make Bucs QB Jameis Winston look like the rookie he resembled in Week 1 against a different opponent from the AFC South. If Houston QB Ryan Mallett takes good care of the football, the Texans will leave the ranks of the winless.
This is the toughest game of the week to predict because I have both of these teams on the rise and headed for the playoffs this season. While I think the Chargers are capable of winning anywhere, the Vikings defense is legit and will make things difficult for Philip Rivers and a San Diego team playing its second straight game on the road.
Remember when Danny Amendola was a punching bag for Patriots fans unhappy with his penchant for frequent injuries and his inability to replace the slot receiver production of the departed Wes Welker? Well they love him now, and his ridiculous catch at Buffalo last week was the key play in New England avoiding a monumental fourth-quarter collapse. The Jaguars knocked off an AFC East contender last week at home, beating Miami, but repeating that accomplishment on a trip to Foxboro represents a definite step up in weight class.
In Philadelphia this week, they’re blaming Chip Kelly for everything but the Sonny Jurgensen trade to Washington, and Eagles fans would probably start Norm Snead at quarterback over the reeling Sam Bradford about now. The Eagles are desperately searching for their identity on offense and don’t know what it is they do well. That means the Jets are not a good matchup for Philly, because New York’s defensive front is very good indeed and could overwhelm an Eagles offensive line that was dreadful last week against Dallas. Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has the full-time starters gig now and he accomplished a quirky little feat against the Colts on Monday night, becoming the first quarterback to start against the same opponent for a different team four years in a row (Buffalo in 2012, Tennessee in '13, Houston in '14 and Indianapolis in '15). If Fitzpatrick and the Jets keep winning, IK Enemkpali is going to get some votes for New York’s team MVP.
The Rams defense did enough to frustrate Seattle’s offense in its opener, but the Steelers offense has considerably more weapons at its disposal and gets running back Le’Veon Bell back from his two-game suspension this week. Pittsburgh dismantled the 49ers at home last week, but will get a tougher test from this NFC West opponent. The Steelers will have a four-quarter battle on their hands, but will prevail late.
Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald refuse to act their age. The Cardinals have now won 15 of the past 17 games Palmer has started, dating from Week 8 of 2013, and that .882 winning percentage is the best in the league among quarterbacks since then. Palmer and Fitzgerald connected for three touchdowns passes last week in Chicago, a trick Fitzgerald had never managed in the regular season, even in Arizona’s Kurt Warner era. None of this bodes well for a 49ers defense that just saw the Steelers hang 43 points on the scoreboard last week. And don’t look now San Francisco, but a visit from bay area native Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay looms in Week 4.
Here’s the thing about the Ndamukong Suh “freelancing” story: Even if it’s one of those deals where the truth is kind of in the eye of the beholder as to whether he was going rogue or not, that there was even a question raised about his play is not a positive development, given Suh’s spotty track record. Just two games into Suh's Dolphins tenure, it only re-enforces the notion that Suh might not have been a wise investment, or is prone to march to his own tune when he sees fit. Both of these AFC East strivers came to earth last week, but the Dolphins should be primed to make amends in their home opener.
Good luck, Jimmy Clausen. The Seahawks have Kam Chancellor back and are itching to take out their frustration on someone. The Bears haven’t won a game since before Thanksgiving last season, but at least this won’t be as ugly as the last time a John Fox-coached team faced Seattle.
There’s something very valuable about a team that is used to winning and expects to win to such a degree that it refuses to acknowledge when the odds are stacked against it, as was the case with the Broncos in Kansas City in the Thursday night game of Week 2. But that comeback win by Denver showed me that the four-time defending AFC West champion will not be displaced easily this season, and will refuse to lose to opponents who don’t have the mettle to step on their throats and finish the deal. And yes, Kansas City, we’re looking in your direction. I don’t see the Lions giving the Broncos a lot of trouble this week, and if Matthew Stafford thought he got knocked around last week at Minnesota, wait until he gets a dose of Von Miller and the Denver pass rush.
There are 19 Super Bowl rematches in the regular season this year and so far things are going to form from a historical perspective. In Week 1, Miami defeated Washington, just as it did in Super Bowl VII. Last week, the Jets knocked off the Colts, even if Fitzpatrick opted to not guarantee the win, a la Joe Namath in Super Bowl III. And I’m not about to go against the trend in this Chiefs-Packers rematch of the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game (thank goodness that mouthful never caught on). Kansas City’s second consecutive night game will end with another loss, and Green Bay’s second consecutive night game will end with another win.
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