• We're backing several strong AFC teams this week, including two MMQB staffers thinking the best play on the board is a surprise AFC division leader.
By The MMQB Staff
October 03, 2018

The AFC looks a lot deeper than what most people assumed before the season, and a few of our staffers are backing surprise AFC division leaders in Week 5. We start with the showdown between the conference's best offense and best defense.

Jacksonville Jaguars (+3) at Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are a red-hot 4-0, but they're also coming off a short week, on the road, after their comeback win in Denver on Monday Night Football. That's a tough turnaround in anticipation of facing the stingiest defense in the league, allowing just 14 points and 259.2 yards per game to opponents. The Chiefs offense is loaded with playmakers, but Jacksonville is the one team with the ability to match up. The Jaguars have a physical front, speedy defenders on the back end and are excellent at diagnosing a team's tendencies, as we saw in Week 2 against the Patriots. — Jenny Vrentas

Tennessee Titans (-3.5) at Buffalo Bills

A general lack of talent caught up to the Bills in Week 4. On the other hand, the Titans, with their offensive tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin plus QB Marcus Mariota all healthy, ran their full offensive system for the first time all year last week and beat the defending champion Eagles. — Andy Benoit

Colts vs. Patriots Betting Preview: Don't Be Afraid to Lay the Points With New England

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (-10)

The Colts come limping into their annual Thursday nighter, just like they did last year (when they became the still-only team to lose to Vance Joseph's Broncos at home after Indy played a snowbound overtime slugfest in Buffalo). The Colts' injury report is the same approximate word count as a George R.R. Martin novel, with the absence of T.Y. Hilton—Andrew Luck's best weapon—the most damaging.

As for the Patriots, they got healthy on defense last week, and this week they get Julian Edelman back to make the offense whole again. Not to mention, they'll play their Thursday night game at home again (fifth time in the last six years) and with the added benefit of having played their previous game in Foxboro again (third time in four years). In those previous two home-TNF-off-a-home-game nights, they beat the Texans 27-0 with Jacoby Brissett under center in 2016, and beat Miami 36-7 in 2015. — Gary Gramling

Arizona Cardinals (+175 ML) at San Francisco 49ers

Most likely, both of these teams will finish with bottom-five records. And yet, Las Vegas is saying the Jimmy Garoppo-less 49ers are significantly better than the visiting Cardinals. I just don't see it. Arizona has lost its last two games by a combined five points, and rookie Josh Rosen drew a strong Pro Football Focus grade for his efforts Sunday. I'd also expect new coach Steve Wilks and the NFL's last winless team to do everything it can to earn win No. 1. In my mind, this contest is much closer to a coin flip. At the very least, a wager on it will give you a reason to pay attention to the worst game on Sunday's slate. — Jacob Feldman

Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals (-6)

We’re seeing an offensive explosion across the league, leading to a season unique for its way that one side of the ball completely dominates the action. The Rams, Chiefs and Saints have received the most attention for the way they typify the direction in which the league is going, but the Bengals have been just about every bit as good offensively. The Bengals rank fifth in the league Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, trailing those three and the Chargers. Andy Dalton is off to a hot, but not quite Mahomes-ian, start, throwing for 1,197 yards, 7.62 yards per attempt and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions, four of which came in the Bengals’ only loss. Tyler Boyd has emerged as a worthy second banana to A.J. Green, the running game is getting the job done whether it’s Joe Mixon or Giovani Bernard, and the offensive line ranks fourth in pass protection and ninth in run blocking by FO’s metrics.

The Bengals have done all this while playing a brutal schedule that has included the Colts, Ravens, Panthers and Falcons, with three of those games—all but the Ravens—on the road. They finally get some home cooking this week, welcoming to Cincinnati a Dolphins team that got blown out on the road by the Patriots last week. The Bengals have scored at least 34 points in all three of their wins, and another such performance should be good enough to cover the number against the Dolphins. The bet here is that they get to 34 again and win by at least a touchdown on Sunday. — Michael Beller

Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals (-6)

I may have underestimated the Bengals coming into the season, but through four games they’ve played like one of the better teams in the AFC. They’re also coming off an impressive win in a shootout at Atlanta.

Vikings vs. Eagles Betting Preview: Can Minnesota Turn It Around in Philly?

The Dolphins, on the other hand, we all knew were not as good as their 3-0 record indicated. They seem like a prime candidate for a bounce-back game, after having the doors blown off in the first half against New England last week, but they still might not have it in them to hang with a better team. The Dolphins are 3-1, but they are 30th in yards per game and 26th in yards allowed per game.

The Bengals have put 34-plus points on the board in all three of their wins, and I think they’ll be able to move the ball again against a Miami team that now has to go on the road for a second straight week. They lost Tyler Eifert last week, but should get Joe Mixon back (as well as Vontaze Burfict on defense).

It’s a little scary that Miami leads the NFL with nine interceptions, including multiple picks in every game, but the defense had nine all of last year and there’s no way that pace can continue. As long as Andy Dalton can avoid a true backbreaker (or two), I think Cincinnati can win comfortably. — Mitch Goldich

Los Angeles Rams (-7) at Seattle Seahawks

I hate laying a touchdown with a road team in a divisional battle, but I’m not sure how the Rams don’t make this a rout with Earl Thomas out for the Seahawks. There may not be a more important player to his defense than the star safety.

Let’s take a look at how Seattle’s 2016 defense fared before and after Thomas’s season-ending injury in Week 13. Before: The Seahawks ranked eighth in percentage of explosive pass plays (20+ yards) allowed and gave up 7.01 yards per pass attempt along with a 77.8 opposing passer rating. After: 31st in percentage of explosive pass plays allowed, 30th in YPA (7.77) and 31st in opposing QB rating (100.3).

And that was with a much more talented defense than this current group, which is currently a subpar 19th in giving up explosive plays. But why all the explosive passing play talk?

The Rams lead the NFL in explosive passing plays, gaining at least 20 yards on a whopping 19% of all throws (the Chiefs are second at 15%). Los Angeles is also tops in yards per play on first down, as it sits at 7.4 YPP while the rest of the league averages 5.6. That success on first down is why the Rams don’t face third and fourth down nearly as often as the rest of the NFL.

Sean McVay loves dialing up play-action passes on early downs, and it’s made the Rams seemingly impossible to stop. It was already going to be a tough ask for Seattle to stop the triumvirate of Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, but without Thomas, those wideouts should have plenty of opportunities to run wild. Add in a top-tier offensive line, stud tailback Todd Gurley and a quarterback who has taken the leap in Jared Goff, and this unit is a full-out juggernaut that can inflict pain at any time.

On the opposite side, the Rams defense is tied for 22nd in sacks, but leads the league in pressure rate (41.4%). Los Angeles should be able to feast on Seattle’s offensive line, and take advantage of an offense that has struggled in the first year under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. It’s hard to make Russell Wilson look ordinary, but that’s pretty much what has happened so far this season.

McVay vs. Schottenheimer is one of the biggest offensive mastermind mismatches of the season. The Rams already have the clear talent advantage, and they’ll have a significant coaching advantage as well, boosted by having a few extra days of prep since the team last played on Thursday night. This game will be ugly. — Max Meyer