Week 3 was not kind to yours truly. It started off on a rough note with my pick of the Texans to win in Foxborough, and then as if being punished by Bill Belichick-related karma the skid continued on through Monday night.
Is this a week of redemption? Let’s hope. The picks:
A quartet of players who will be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Quincy Enunwa, WR, Jets: Enunwa saw a team-high 11 targets last week, which is either I suppose is only a good thing if you believe Ryan Fitzpatrick knew which direction he was throwing. Neverthless, Enunwa (17 catches for 183 yards and a TD) has carved out a significant role in the Jets’s passing attack. He is on pace to handle even more responsibility if Eric Decker’s shoulder injury is deemed serious.
If the Jets let Brandon Marshall line up opposite Richard Sherman, that means Fitzpatrick will have to look Enunwa’s way early and often.
2. Christian Covington, DE, Texans: Antonio Smith eventually may step in as the Texans attempt to survive minus J.J. Watt. The veteran, though, just signed with Houston this week and did not participate in training camp anywhere, so he’ll need some time to get his legs underneath him.
Sunday, it very well could be Covington in Watt’s spot when the Titans visit. The 2015 sixth-round pick will have his endurance tested, too. Whereas Watt played 86.3% of Houston’s defensive snaps in Weeks 1–3 (down from 96% a year ago), Covington has been on the field for just 44 plays thus far.
3. David Amerson, CB, Raiders: The Raiders probably will vary their coverages Sunday, but it makes sense to use the physical Sean Smith on Breshad Perriman/Steve Smith and let Amerson try to run with speedy Mike Wallace. That’s not an easy draw, if it indeed works out that way. Wallace is averaging 16.6 yards per catch and is the only Raven with a receiving TD this season (he has three).
4. Jaron Brown, WR, Cardinals: Play this man. Brown is still struggling to find playing time on an offense loaded up by Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown and J.J. Nelson. But when the Cardinals turn him loose, he usually makes something happen. On his six catches this season, Brown is averaging a massive 24.2 yards. For a vertical-based offense like Arizona’s that is searching for consistent footing, Brown’s home-run potential should be getting more of a look.
• Last week: 6–10 overall (30–18 season), 8–8 vs. the spread (29–20 season).
• Best pick in Week 3: Colts 35, Chargers 31 (actual score: Colts 26–22).
• Worst pick in Week 3: Steelers 28, Eagles 27 (actual score: Eagles 34–3).
The first of four NFL games outside the States, and one of two at London’s Wembley Stadium. And while it’s not a hard and fast rule by any means, teams that are reeling heading into these overseas trips tend not to pull it together before coming home. So, that’s bad news for the Jaguars, even though they are favored on Sunday. On the flip side, the Colts have the league’s 27th-ranked pass defense and just lost pass-rusher Trent Cole to I.R., which means the stars are aligning for Blake Bortles to shake off his early-season malaise. He might, but Andrew Luck is coming off a 331-yard showing. It’s a lot to ask Jacksonville’s offense and defense to find their strides simultaneously.
Watchability index (out of 10): 4. The morning start provides a nice way to kill time until the NFL’s full slate kicks off. This also amounts to a rather important game in the AFC South, but I’m not entirely sure how to score that fact.
Seattle QB and Human Gumby Russell Wilson plans to play, despite his left leg almost snapping in half last week. He’s also just a couple weeks removed from a troublesome right ankle sprain. How effective he is moving his legs could be the deciding factor, because the Jets’s front will get after it. Granted, he won’t have to be all that good if Ryan Fitzpatrick spontaneously combusts again. Fitzmagic fired six INTs last week in a loss to Kansas City, and now could be down ultra-reliable target Eric Decker (shoulder). The Seattle defense has forced just one turnover thus far, but it’s also held its first three opponents under the 300-yard barrier. Expect a grind-it-out ballgame
Watchability index: 7. Should Fitzpatrick keep it together and Wilson play, there ought to be drama in the fourth quarter. The Jets could use one after coughing away chances against the Bengals and Chiefs.
The Lions have allowed 34 and 35 points, respectively, in their first two road games. The Bears have yet to top 17 points during their 0–3 start. Something’s gotta give here. This is by far Chicago’s best chance so far to find a little groove—the Lions again are expected to be without Ziggy Ansah and DeAndre Levy, the latter injury particularly troublesome given how little depth they have at linebacker. How much the Bears (led by either Jay Cutler or Brian Hoyer) need to score will depend on what their secondary can do vs. Detroit’s receiver. CB Kyle Fuller just landed on I.R., so veteran Tracy Porter will continue to be joined on the field by youngsters like Jacoby Glenn and Deiondre’ Hall. Matthew Stafford is rolling early in 2016, especially when targeting Marvin Jones, the league leader in receiving yards.
Watchability index: 3. There should be some offensive fireworks throughout, but even that won’t be enough to hide how awful the Bears appear to be.
Terrelle Pryor earned the headlines and Hue Jackson received a lot of praise out of Cleveland’s Week 3 outing. Aside from taking a delay of game on his first snap then fumbling a minute later, though, QB Cody Kessler was much better in his debut (21 of 33 for 244 yards) than anyone—save for maybe Jackson—expected. He draws a 29th-ranked defense this week, one that just lost DeAngelo Hall (ACL) for the year. Washington’s feeling good anyway thanks to its Week 3 win in New York. Good news for the Redskins, too: The Browns cannot rush the passer (three sacks this season) and their O-line has protected Kirk Cousins well for the most part. A “You like that!” performance is in the cards.
Watchability index: 2. The Browns are a curiosity more than must-see, the NFL’s circus freaks. Washington should roll, but the same was said of Miami last week.
J.J. Watt (back) is on injured reserve, so this now is a fair question to ask: Will the AFC South champion finish with an above-.500 record? The division is a collective 4-8 headed into this weekend. Houston had emerged as an early favorite before the Watt injury and a 27-0 humiliation in New England. Brock Osweiler left that defeat carrying a 3:4 TD-to-INT differential this season. The Watt-less Texans defense at least gets a potential reprieve here—the Titans’s offensive approach has been a mess. Fantasy note with regards to Titans TE Delanie Walker: Houston has held opposing tight ends to 58 yards and no TDs in 2016.
Watchability index: 4. Intriguing in so much that it’s a battle for first place in the AFC South. Beyond that ...
It’s Patriots week for the Bills, which means Rex Ryan has spent several days walking the line between heated rival and crazy person. Initially, it looked like the Bills might miss Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, the two Brady fill-ins dealing with injuries. Instead, Garoppolo is inching toward a start. Of greater concern for Buffalo is solving New England’s defense, which has forced seven turnovers over the past two weeks. Another strong showing on the ground from Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy would help open things up, even if Sammy Watkins has to sit again. After picking against the Patriots in Weeks 1 and 3, I’m not going down that road this time.
Watchability index: 8. A New England win plus a Seattle win over the Jets would hand the Patriots a massive three-game division lead, with Brady set to return next week. This could be the rest of the East’s last shot to keep it close.
Over their last eight games, dating back to last season, the Panthers have posted a 4–4 record. The stretch started with a Week 16 loss in Atlanta, a game in which Cam Newton threw for just 142 yards. The Falcons’s defense has not come anywhere near that level of a shut-down performance in Weeks 1–3, but their offense is pacing the league in both yards and points. Carolina’s young secondary has not seen an opponent with the explosive capabilities that Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and their teammates have. However, in a game that could come down to needing a late stop, the team with the better defense gets the nod.
Watchability index: 9. The defending NFC champs would be 1–3 and two games back in the division with a loss here. Atlanta would love to score a statement-making victory.
The Raiders as a franchise did not win any games in the Eastern time zone between 2010-14. They’ve done it three times since: at Cleveland last season, at Tennessee in both ’15 and ’16. The challenge Sunday is on another level, with the undefeated Ravens waiting. Baltimore will have back in its lineup OLB Elvis Dumervil (foot), who will be making his season debut. The Ravens’s defense was doing the bulk of the work as it was during that 3-0 start. For Oakland to swipe a road win, it has to pressure Joe Flacco—the Raiders have just three sacks this season, none by Khalil Mack—and limit the big plays from Mike Wallace & Co. At 9.1 net yards allowed per pass attempt, Oakland has the most giving defense in the league.
Watchability index: 8. Record-wise, this is the best Week 4 has to offer. The Ravens still have their critics, despite the perfect start, because they have knocked off three subpar teams by a combined 13 points.
Trevor Siemian’s 23 completions in Cincinnati last week gained an average of 13.6 yards, a mark just off Carson Palmer’s league-leading clip of last season (13.7). Perhaps Siemian cannot maintain that level of production on a weekly basis, but even the threat of a deep ball bumps Denver beyond where it was with Peyton Manning at the helm last season. Tampa Bay can be a big-play offense, too ... and it almost has to be right now given the state of its run game—Doug Martin remains sidelined and the Bucs have not rushed for 100 yards any week this season. Mike Evans vs. Aqib Talib/Chris Harris might be the best showdown of Week 4.
Watchability index: 7. Tampa Bay is capable of springing the upset. It’s equally capable of a total implosion, as was the case at Arizona in Week 2.
Drew Brees has played the Chargers twice (2008 and ’12), but never in San Diego since he signed with the Saints 10 years ago. He should be extra motivated, and he draws a Chargers’s defense that is allowing 322 passing yards per game, third worst in the NFL. But how much can Brees do on his own? Philip Rivers has used his offense’s short-passing attack to post a 69% completion rate without an interception this season. The Saints’s battered, porous defense also has to deal with a resurgent Melvin Gordon, who will try to rebound from a tough Week 3 in Indianapolis. On the road, across the country, against a very good offense, the Saints are up against it. Call this pick a gut feeling.
Watchability index: 8, or 2. It depends on how you felt about Week 3’s action. Did the Chargers’s wild finish with Indianapolis or the Saints’s Monday night shootout vs. Atlanta do it for you? If so, more of the same is on tap.
Is the real 49ers’s defense the one that stuffed Los Angeles in Week 1? Or is it the one that allowed a combined 947 yards and 83 points in losses the past two Sundays? The answer is that it’s probably somewhere in between. In reality, it’s a very young defense hindered by Chip Kelly’s offense—only three teams have less time of possession than San Francisco. There will be weeks when the 49ers’s defense rises to the occasion, and this could be one, especially if Dez Bryant is a no-go on his bum knee. Dak Prescott was phenomenal vs. Chicago, but the 49ers might have enough speed in their front seven to limit the run and force Prescott into tough spots. That, or the Cowboys will win by 30.
Watchability index: 5. Dallas has a growing number of believers. Will the momentum continue through this week?
The Cardinals are at home (in general, good news for Carson Palmer) and the Rams are shy the receivers really capable of challenging Arizona’s young cornerbacks outside. Add in the Rams’s suspect defense—Jameis Winston threw for 400 yards against it last week—and it’s no surprise Arizona is a comfortable favorite. The Rams could pull off another upset, though, if Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn take over up front, and if Todd Gurley builds off his two-touchdown Week 3.
Watchability index: 6. Los Angeles is one big win away from throwing its hat in the ring as a legit 2016 sleeper, while Arizona has to show a little desperation after a rocky start.
Mike Tomlin said this week that the Chiefs will see “a lot” of RB Le’Veon Bell, in his first game back from suspension. No surprise, as Bell remains arguably the NFL’s top back. The NFL’s most productive back in Weeks 1-3, however, plays for the Chiefs. That would be Spencer Ware, whose 387 yards from scrimmage gives him a one-yard edge on Arizona dynamo David Johnson. Ware’s been so good, in fact, that Kansas City hardly misses Jamaal Charles, and he is one of four Chiefs with 100-plus yards receiving. In other words, the Steelers will have their hands full defensively, regardless of what Bell does. But they should get a huge boost from having their superstar back.
Watchability index: 9. A well-chosen showdown by the folks at NBC. If the Patriots and Broncos are the class of the AFC right now, these teams are right there atop the second tier.
When these teams met last Dec. 29, the Vikings won 49-15 in a game that saw Eli Manning pulled late for Ryan Nassib. Both teams are in different spots now, but have the Giants closed the gap enough? The return of Victor Cruz, addition of Sterling Shepard and upgrades on defense make it possible. That said, to beat the Vikings, you have to win the battles in the trenches. The Giants may be able to fluster Sam Bradford, but their offensive line will be hard-pressed to match any success.
Watchability index: 7. The Vikings’s defense has been even better than advertised thus far. How will Eli Manning attack it?
Surprise star of Week 4: Josh Ferguson, RB, Colts. The Colts’s passing-down back has seen a relatively steady dose of targets (11 over three games), but he’s yet to bust loose with any noteworthy production. If Indianapolis can get him in space against someone other than Telvin Smith or Tashaun Gipson, this could be the chance.
Upset of the week: Saints (+4) over Chargers. Maybe this is just refusal to believe the Drew Brees era is dying in New Orleans. Maybe it’s realistic because San Diego has been so underwhelming defensively. Too late to turn back now.
College upset of the week (Season: 1-2): Washington State (+2) over Oregon. Time to get back on track here, and to do so I’ll throw my support behind the team playing Oregon’s defense. The Ducks can’t stop anybody.