Week 4 picks: Stumbling teams hope to avoid fading from importance
Covering the NFL for a living, I used to think I knew what an important story in the NFL was, but these days I’m a little hazy on that front. Because as everyone fully understands, everything having to do with the NFL is very, very important, at all times.
Like what a referee might or might not have said on the field to a star quarterback, offhandedly or otherwise. Or what some coach’s kid tweeted after a Jets game. Or who Tom Brady did or didn’t endorse for president. Or whether Brandon Weeden or Troy Aikman throws/threw the prettiest ball Jerry Jones has ever seen. These are all apparently critical matters that deserve our full attention.
With the NFL, there are no trivial pursuits. But then again, I can’t help but think that by definition, if everything is important, nothing is important. And that’s pretty much where we’re at in today’s NFL, with that voracious 24/7 news cycle that demands to be fed.
Fortunately there are some pretty important games in Week 4 for us to focus on momentarily, especially for desperate teams like Miami, where head coach Joe Philbin is again showing cracks in his heat shield, and New Orleans, where the Saints have turned back the clock to the bad old days, and Detroit, where the Lions are making last year’s playoff run look flukier by the week. If the Dolphins, Saints and Lions can’t get on a winning track soon, their seasons are going to fade in importance as October unfolds.
Now on to this week’s picks...
• Last week: 11-5; Season: 29–19 (.604).
• Best pick in Week 3: Carolina 26, New Orleans 21 (actual score Panthers 27–22).
• Worst pick in Week 3: Miami 27, Buffalo 24 (actual score: Bills 41–14).
For a team stuck in 8–8 status quo land, it’s somehow fitting the 2015 Dolphins are mirroring the '14 Dolphins thus far. Last season, Miami won its opener, then dropped two in a row, including a beatdown against the Bills and ugly home loss to Kansas City. This year, Miami won its opener, then dropped two in a row, managing to combine the beatdown against the Bills and the ugly home loss into one forgettable 41–14 defeat last week. Both last year and this year, a Week 4 trip to London fell next on the schedule. Here comes a big morale-lifting win over the Jets, right? Because last year the Dolphins pummeled the Raiders 38–14 in London, sparking them to four wins in five games. Not so fast, Fish fans. The 2015 Jets defense is not the '14 Raiders defense, and no 38-point explosions will be forthcoming. I like New York to rebound after last week’s first-half egg-laying against the Eagles, further isolating Miami in the depths of last place in the AFC East.
Texans QB Ryan Mallett can’t afford to be just a game manager this week, not if he’s going to keep pace with the Falcons’ potent offense. It wouldn’t be a stunner to see Houston cobble together the upset in the Georgia Dome, but the Falcons are oozing with early season turnaround team mojo, having mounted second-half comeback wins against the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys. And the Falcons’ 3–0 mark could be just the start of their good fortune, because Atlanta’s next seven opponents all look pretty beatable, with those teams currently owning one or fewer wins. Book it: A very successful season is on the way in Atlanta.
We had this preseason NFL planning meeting at SI.com in June, where I sagely suggested we run a weekly tracker on the production levels of both Eagles running back DeMarco Murray and Bills running back LeSean McCoy, since Chip Kelly effectively swapped one star runner out for another this offseason. (I offered the same brainstorm for Sam Bradford and Nick Foles, but I digress.) Murray and McCoy, not so much to talk about through the season’s first three weeks, eh? Just injuries and limited effectiveness. But with rookie Karlos Williams carrying the load in Buffalo’s backfield the Bills haven’t suffered for McCoy’s so-so production. Rex Ryan’s team made a statement last week with its rout of Miami, and it’s now clear this Tyrod Taylor-led offense won’t play second fiddle to the Bills defense after all. Study the Buffalo schedule a bit and it’s not too difficult to see the Bills sitting 7–2 as they roll into Foxboro for a rematch with the Pats in Week 11.
So it has come to this for the lowly Bears? The visiting Raiders are being asked if they’re vulnerable to over-confidence and taking Chicago lightly? Oakland finally got an away win last week at Cleveland, but had dropped 11 in a row and 19 out of 20 on the road dating to 2012. Bears head coach John Fox must feel like he’s been dropped into some alternate universe, or at the very least, Carolina, circa 2010, when the Panthers went 2–14 with Jimmy Clausen at quarterback in Fox’s final season in Charlotte. Just a minute ago, Fox led a Broncos team that ruled the AFC West the past four seasons. Now his Bears are home underdogs to the doormat Raiders? Yep. And deservedly so.
You have to be impressed with Cincinnati’s 3–0 start, and how crisp and efficient Andy Dalton’s quarterbacking has been for the Bengals. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves once again when it comes to Marvin Lewis’s talented team. Cincinnati opened 3-0 last season and was winning every game comfortably, then came a stretch where they were blown out at New England, tied by Carolina at home and embarrassed at Indianapolis. The Bengals are about to embark on similar stretch in terms of quality opponents, drawing the Chiefs and Seahawks at home the next two weeks, before a game at Buffalo in Week 6. Let’s wait and see where Dalton and Co. are at that point before the buzz gets any louder. The Chiefs are way better than they looked down 31–7 at Green Bay on Monday night, but back-to-back road games, with a short week no less, is a tough draw.
The good news for the Jaguars is that they’ll fare much better against the losing team from last season’s AFC Championship game than they did against the winning team from that game. The bad news is that it still spells defeat for Jacksonville, just as it did last week in New England. The Colts are a shaky bunch so far in 2015, but they still own the AFC South until further notice, as last week’s semi-miraculous win at Tennessee served to underline.
Quirky stat of the week: The Bucs and Panthers haven’t split their two-game season series since 2008, the last year of the Jon Gruden era in Tampa Bay. Carolina has swept the past two years, and three out of the last four. Basically since Cam Newton arrived on the scene in 2011, the Panthers have owned the Bucs. That trend won’t end Sunday, because the Panthers defense is too good to allow Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Jameis Winston to do much damage. The surprising Panthers will enter their Week 5 bye having won an eye-opening eight consecutive regular-season games, and nine out of their past 10 including the playoffs.
Many might forget that it was Philadelphia’s 27–24 loss at Washington in Week 16 last December that snuffed out the last of the Eagles’ once-robust playoff hopes. Chip Kelly’s team hasn’t lost track of that detail, however, and I think Philly is about to put together its most complete performance of the season and earn a division road win. Eagles QB Sam Bradford could really use a strong showing, because even in victory last week against the Jets he looked inaccurate and out of rhythm, missing some very makeable throws.
It feels like just a matter of time until they wear down Browns coach Mike Pettine with the weekly “Is it Manziel time?’’ questions, and he shows up for his Monday news conference wearing a sandwich board that displays all of his answers. But that home loss to Oakland had to be a hope-killer in Cleveland, and the Browns will need to do something pretty quick here to keep the natives from getting too restless. The Chargers too owe the faithful a little something in the way of optimism after back-to-back road losses at Cincinnati and Minnesota. If San Diego is going anywhere this season, this is a game it has to have in the win column.
The Rams not only lost their game last week against visiting Pittsburgh, they lost their fireworks privileges for the rest of the season. Sorry, St. Louis. You’ll thank me one day. For a city going through potential relocation agita this season, it’s probably not the best reminder for the Rams to be playing at the first-place Cardinals, the last franchise to deem St. Louis insufficient. But perhaps a return to NFC West competition will do Jeff Fisher’s puzzling club some good. The Rams beat Seattle in Week 1, then dropped games at Washington to the Steelers. Check that, running into red-hot Arizona is not a recipe for a rebound. The Cardinals are systematically taking opponents apart this season.
Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway has been Adrian Peterson’s teammate and friend since the running back entered the NFL in 2007, so his observations on Peterson’s '15 comeback carry some weight with me. I asked Greenway what he saw last week from Peterson against San Diego, and I’m pretty sure Vikings fans will like what he had to say: “I thought the first couple games he was kind of tip-toeing at times, when he normally wouldn’t have done that. I thought Sunday his cuts were a little crisper. The holes he was seeing were there and he was hitting them. There’s a lot left in the tank, and he’s hungry.” I think Minnesota will ask plenty of Peterson when it faces Denver’s No. 1 ranked defense on Sunday, but it won’t be quite enough as long as the Broncos keep Peyton Manning fairly clean and free of the Vikings’ improved pass rush.
If it feels like the Packers are always playing against the NFC West, you’re not wrong. Three of Green Bay’s first five games this season will be against NFC West clubs, and of course the Packers’ recent playoff record against that division is abysmal, with four of Green Bay’s last six seasons being ended by an NFC West opponent in the playoffs (Seattle in 2014, San Francisco in '13 and '12, Arizona in '09). But the Packers launched their little revenge tour in Week 2 at home against Seattle, and they’ll continue it this week on the road against the out-manned 49ers. I have Green Bay making it back to Santa Clara a second time this season, in early February for Super Bowl 50. But first things first, and that means taking care of business against an obviously lost Colin Kaepernick, who has tormented the Packers in winning all three of his career starts against them.
There’s not much that makes sense to me about the Cowboys and Saints these days. Dallas has won 10 consecutive road games, playoffs excluded, dating to Week 14 of 2013. The Saints have lost six straight in the Superdome, where they were once nearly invincible. And now I’m being asked to believe that Brandon Weeden, who has lost the past nine games he started, will end that skid against the Saints, no matter if they start Drew Brees or Luke McCown at quarterback? I’m not buying it. Both teams’ streaks end Sunday night in New Orleans.
Whose bright idea was it to subject us to two consecutive Lions primetime games? Thanks, NFL. Detroit didn’t suffer its fourth defeat last season until Week 12, just four days before its big Thanksgiving Day blowout of the Bears. But this season, Jim Caldwell’s Lions will be 0–4 and sinking fast before October is even a week old. That 18-point lead Detroit held in Week 1 at San Diego must already seem like it was three years ago. Other than anticipating that Golden Tate is going to create headlines of some sort in making his return to Seattle, I can’t think of a surplus of reasons to get pumped for this Monday night matchup. Even Jon Gruden might get bored and stop using Mike Tirico’s first name seven times a minute.