~Editor's Note: This is a straight-up pick 'em column, not against-the-spread~
Nine wins isn't the greatest start to the season, but I can make my peace with it given how little is known about each team at the start of the season. Hell, last year this column swung from 10-6 in Week 1 to 6-10 in Week 2 but still rebounded to beat the Vegas sharps by a comfortable margin on the season.
It's still far too early to know what we're dealing with in regards to most of these teams (think last year's Cardinals or 2011's Lions), but we must press ever onward with the information we have. No excuses for a mediocre 9-7 start, but I also see no reason to think we won't bounce back. To the picks!
Last week, I expected the Patriots to roll over Buffalo while anticipating a Jets loss to Tampa Bay but neither of those things happened and, while New England still eked out a win, neither team played at the levels I guessed they would. Week 2 may be the most dangerous one to make picks as our preconceived notions of what each team is often clashes with the premature encapsulations we've made from their opening performances.
Bill Belichick's team enters Thursday night's game with three of their top playmakers out with injuries. Rob Gonkowski, Shane Vereen, and Danny Amendola are all highly unlikely to play, leaving Tom Brady with a straight up group of replacements to throw to. If Rex Ryan is ever gonna win a game in Foxboro, this would be the one and, while I like the Jets to cover the 11.5 points that Vegas is giving them, I'm still taking the Belichick/Brady combo over the Ryan/anybody combo until I see better evidence as to why not.
THE PICK: PATRIOTS
If you've been reading this column over the last couple for years, you know that one of my precepts is that in games between two bad teams, take the home team and forget about it. It's tougher to figure bad teams out than good ones because of the inconsistency that annually plagues the bottom third of the league. Both of these teams are destined for that bottom third again this year and, as much as I like Gus Bradley, I think Sunday is the day Terrelle Pryor gets his first win as an NFL QB.
THE PICK: RAIDERS
On Monday night, we saw both of these teams live up to the most cartoonish expectations we had. The Chargers surged out to an improbable 21-point lead against the visiting Texans, only to watch victory slip through their hands like that one M&M in a handful of trail mix. The Eagles, for their part, unveiled the new Chip Kelly video game offense, running 53 plays in the first half alone as if the fatigue settings had been turned off. For perspective, that's as many plays as the Steelers, Jaguars, and Titans ran in their entire games last week.
I'd consider the Chargers in this one if were being played in San Diego and because I don't necessarily trust that Philly's frenetic pace is sustainably effective, but this game is being played in Philadelphia, which is basically the anti-San Diego. The Chargers defense that got picked apart late in the game last week will be running out of fuel much earlier in this one.
THE PICK: EAGLES
This is a battle between eight-year-old Jacson's two favorite uniforms and if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times: in a game between your favorite childhood uniforms, take the home team. Also, take the Falcons because they're 20-4 at home over the last three seasons and last week's last-minute loss at New Orleans shouldn't do anything to dissuade you of this team's talent.
Both the Panthers and the Bills played better than most expected, each suffering close, fourth quarter losses against better opponents. The difference between these teams, however, is that Carolina is built to sustain a higher level of play, whereas with Buffalo I'm far less certain. Carolina stayed close with Seattle because they have a very good quarterback and an on-the-cusp-of-great front seven. Buffalo's game meanwhile, looked to me more like a case of the better team struggling. Last week, the Patriots offense looked as bad as it has in years and the Bills still couldn't hang on to a win at home.
CJ Spiller will have a tough time getting space against Luke Kuechly, Star Lotuleilei, and the others, which would leave the onus on rookie QB EJ Manuel to carry the offense. I like the Bills, and I'd like to see them get better, but while their defense forced some turnovers last week, all but one of them had more to do with bad play by the opposing offense than good play by the Bills D. Not often that you'll catch me suggesting you take a winless road team to win, but Week 2 in Buffalo is an exception I'm willing to make.
THE PICK: PANTHERS
As long as the Bears are healthy, they're a much better, more well-rounded team than the Vikings are. Adrian Peterson may have the highest ceiling in the history of running backs, but you need more than that to beat a good team on the road in the NFL. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell went bonkers against the Minnesota defense last week, what do you think Matt Forte is gonna do? Besides, which players (or how many) are going to guard Brandon Marshall. Add to that the volatile combination of Christian Ponder and the Bears' secondary and you've got all the makings of a game that's decided well before the final whistle sounds.
THE PICK: BEARS
The gap between these two teams is closing steadily, but it still exists. The Ravens aren't as bad as they looked against Denver last week, but the Browns might be as bad as they looked against Miami. In Baltimore, this game should be a comfortable bounceback for the defensing champs.
THE PICK: RAVENS
One of the toughest games to pick this week, but I'm a bigger believer in Andy Reid's Chiefs' ability to sustain last week's level of play than I am in Jason Garrett's Cowboys'. Tony Romo, who I think is actually a very good QB, will be bringing very tender ribs into this one; ribs that caused him to short arm nearly every second half throw last week. Additionally, his best weapon, Dez Bryant, is banged up and isn't likely to be 100%.
I suspect Jamaal Charles is gonna eat good in this one, limiting Kansas City's need to put the game on Alex Smith's shoulders. The Chiefs have a young, exciting team with a bunch of playmakers -- a fact easy to forget after the Romeo Crennel debacle. Reid has always been excellent at maximizing the strengths of his best players and in Arrowhead, I feel good about Kansas City.
THE PICK: CHIEFS
Take Green Bay and take the over (49.5).
THE PICK: PACKERS
I'm hesitant to read into the Titans win in Pittsburgh too much, given the way the Steelers played. If the Steelers' Week 1 performance was a commercial, it would be telling you to hurry into Money Tree for a payday loan. Yes, the Titans won, but what about that looks transferable towards winning this game? The 117 passing yards? The 3.6 yards per play?
The Texans team they'll be visiting is nothing like the Steelers team they just faced. The Texans, for example have an offensive line. A really good one in fact; good enough to send three of it's five starters to the Pro Bowl, even. The Titans defensive stats look good, but Arian Foster, Ben Tate, Andre Johnson, and that O-line is a lot different than Isaac Redman, Emmanuel Sanders, and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Unless Tennessee's offense morphs into something much different than what it's been, the Texans will roll at home.
THE PICK: TEXANS
Another toughie, as I'm not ready to buy either of these teams as contenders yet. Miami's win in Cleveland was more impressive than Indy's squeaker over Oakland at home, but this game is still in Indy and I still think the Colts put a better product on the field than Miami does. The key to this game will be Miami's ability to establish a run game, as their two tailbacks (Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas) combined for an impotent 17 yards on 18 carries against the Browns. The Colts are as good a team as any to establish a run game against, given their sieve-like performances over the last couple of years, but I don't see a lot of reasons to hope when I look at the 'Phins O-line.
The Colts, for their part, may not have always looked like the better team, but since the start of 2012 they've gone 12-5 and you can't win that many NFL games in that short a period of time without being at least pretty good. The defense is getting better, the offense is already blossoming, and despite Miami employing pass-rushing savant Cameron Wake, I see Andrew Luck holding court at home.
THE PICK: COLTS
This was the most difficult game of the week for me to pick. The Lions looked pretty good in a home win against a presumably bad team while the Cardinals also looked pretty good in a close road loss against a team on the cusp of playoff contention. It's hard to shake the images of screaming children and suffering animals that the 2012 Cardinals offense invoked, which is why I had a hard time accepting the relative fluidity with which Carson Palmer found Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. The Rams defense is no joking matter and Arizona managed to post 390 total yards in St Louis.
Last week, the Lions only had to worry about their opponents' running game and they did quite well. This week, they have the opposite assignment, and it's one I think they're less equipped to execute. The Lions offense will get their stats on Sunday, but so will the Cardinals. The only things that has ever slowed Fitzgerald down were his quarterbacks and now he has a real one. The answer to Fitz won't be found in the Lions' secondary, meaning they'll be relying heavily on their pass rush to slow the Cards down.
Vegas likes the Lions in this one, but I'm taking the Cardinals in their home opener.
THE PICK: CARDINALS
If I finish above .500 in intra-NFC South games this year I'll consider it a victory. I can't remember a division where all four teams were as close in talent as the Saints, Bucs, Falcons, and Panthers are. The conventional thought in tough games is to go with HFA, which would give the nod to Tampa but I'm taking the Saints and I'll tell you why:
Forget about last year. The Sean Payton-less Saints were a fractured unit and their lack of continuity showed up in every aspect of their defense. Perhaps the most condemning stat from their 2012 campaign was the 7,000+ yards they allowed, the most in NFL history. That led to the acquisition of Rob Ryan and, while I don't read into one-week performances too often, the complete effort that D showed against the Falcons leads me to believe the defense be markedly better than the sewage explosion they put on the field last year.
The offense meanwhile, looks poised to stay at or near the top of the NFL in sheer production. Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints attack were still good enough to net seven wins last year, despite the historically awful performance of their defensive counterparts, and they did it without the help of Payton, who Brees considers an invaluable part of their efficiency and success. Now, the Saints have their coach back, they have at least some semblance of a defense, and they're healthy.
The Bucs are an extremely young team with a promising future, but they're just not as far along in their development as New Orleans is. Look for Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson to get btheirs, from a sheer volume approach if nothing else, but I don't see it being enough to overcome the difference between Brees and Josh Freeman.
THE PICK: SAINTS
At this point, I'm just taking the Broncos until they give me a reason not to. Yes, the Giants have shown that they're capable of beating anyone at any time but if I'm betting on one of these teams, I'm taking the one that's won 12 of their last 13 (with eight of those wins coming by double digits and none of them by less than eight points). Maybe this is the day that Eli finally beats Peyton, but it'll take a hell of a lot more help from his supporting cast than he got last week.
I understand the argument for the Giants here and a New York win wouldn't be shocking, but the Broncos look to be as good as anyone in the league and the G-Men, frankly, do not.
THE PICK: BRONCOS
This will be the most anticipated September game in the history of Seattle football. The 'Hawks-Niners rivalry is fast becoming one of the NFL's most competitive, combative, and adversarial. Both teams employ similar run-heavy strategies balanced by dynamic QBs, overtly physical defenses, efficient special teams, and forward-thinking coaches. There isn't a matchup I'd rather watch on a neutral field than this one, as I think every game in that situation would be close. This game isn't being played at a neutral site, however -- far from it.
The 12th Man will be attempting to set a world record for crowd noise at this one and whether they succeed or not, this is the same crowd that had Colin Kaepernick telling the sideline he couldn't hear them during the Seahawks' 42-13 beatdown. Now, in no way do i think Seattle will duplicate their near-30 point victory this Sunday night, but I also don't think San Francisco will be that much better than they were last year. These teams are largely the same as they were in 2012, and I don't think the visitors will be as caught off guard this time. The CLink will be filled with a boisterousness fueled by an entire day of pre-funking, presenting an atmosphere that, combined with last year's top scoring defense, will be too much for Kap and the Niners to overcome.
THE PICK: SEAHAWKS
Disregard everything a lifetime of following the NFL has told you about these two teams. TheBengals are on their way up and I wouldn't be surprised to see them contending for the AFC crown by season's end while the Steelers just look like a big oafish mess. Don't bet money on a big oafish mess on the road.
THE PICK: BENGALS