~Editor's Note: This is a straight-up pick 'em column, not against-the-spread~
Well that certainly feels better. Thirteen wins last week moves us to 22-10 on the season and were hopefully enough to help you win your office pool, impress the boss, and validate your decision to stop wearing underpants. In fact, the only three games this column was wrong about (CAR/BUF, MIA/IND, SD/PHI) were decided on the last play. That's a good week, but it won't mean much if we don't keep it going.
To the picks!
If I was in charge of scheduling the NFL's primetime games, one of the biggest variables in my formula would be fantasy football relevance and this game is brimming with it. Face it, unless you're gambling or playing fantasy, you're not likely to be very invested in most NFL games beyond the fact that it's football and if the game isn't close, loots of people are gonna start scrolling through their DVRs. But, if you've got guys going, you're in it until the final gun.
Despite the high-voltage lineup of stat-compilers taking the field Thursday night, I'm guessing that the league's decision to feature this game had a lot less to do with LeSean McCoy's and Jamaal Charles' owners as it did with the fact that Andy Reid is going back to Philly as an opponent. Reid inherited a talented roster with big-time playmakers that desperately needed direction, while new Eagles coach Chip Kelly inherited a roster of video game players desperately needing a Game Genie. Both coaches are leaving their fingerprints thickly on the identities of their new teams, combining for half as many wins (3) through two weeks as the two franchises had all last year.
C'mon man, pick a team. Okay, I'm taking the Eagles and here's why: I think their versatility makes them a bit better than the Chiefs right now and they'll have a lubed-up night-time crowd that believes in this team* backing it. I'm guessing Alex Smith ends up looking pretty good tonight while Charles and Dwayne Bowe eat their fill of yards, but I'm buying Kelly's offensive circus. I'm buying in not only because I think it's far more intricate and sustainable than many give it credit for, but because it's designed to maximize its best weapons and the Eagles have a customized arsenal of them.
*Don't underestimate the difference in HFA between a city that legitimately thinks its team is competitive and a city that doesn't. Philly's in again.
THE PICK: EAGLES
I like the Bengals as a legitimate threat to win the AFC North this year and it won't surprise me one bit if they're one of the last two or four teams standing in the conference. They're young, they have a mission that the players are invested in, and they've built a relentless defense over the last couple of years. They don't have Aaron Rodgers though, and outside of AJ Green, they don't have Rodgers' caliber of receivers. I can see the Bengals suppressing the Packers offense longer than most, but you need a great defense to keep them down all game.
Rodgers has been on the road once already, against one of the league's three best defenses (49ers), and came away with 333 yards, 3 TDs, and a 102.6 passer efficiency. It's true that they don't run the ball well (last week James Starks became the first Packers RB in 45 games to break 100 yards), but when your QB is essentially handing the ball off to receivers 15 yards downfield, you don't need to. This one stays close, but Green Bay will score often enough to win.
THE PICK: PACKERS
I was actually kind of excited to watch two teams with no passing game rely solely on their star running backs for offense but with the Browns trading Trent Richardson to the Colts yesterday, we'll now be treated to a game with exactly one relevant offensive player. Even with Richardson, the Browns weren't going to win this one. Without him, they're simply laying down a 14-game path to a top-3 pick. The Joe Banner rebuild starts now.
THE PICK: VIKINGS
I'm not gonna pretend to have either of these mercurial teams figured out this early in the season, which is why I'm comfortable taking the home squad. Look, I think the Rams will be the better of the two teams by season's end, but this game isn't being played at season's end, it's being played while the Rams' fresh-out-of-the-box offense still finding itself and a Cowboys team that is mostly healthy and accustomed to the gameplan/approach they'll be taking onto the field.
THE PICK: COWBOYS
Yes, the Redskins have lost their first two games and yes, they've looked bad for the majority of both but remember that Robert Griffin III didn't have a preseason and has had to get his bearings at full speed. RGIII has long been lauded for his ability to make adjustments and his record-setting rookie year stands as proof, and that adaptive acumen has been on display in the significant improvement in the second halves of his first two games.
I'm basing this pick on the combination of my belief that it won't take Griffin as long to get going this time and the fact that he's going against a Lions D that isn't likely to offer a lot of resistance. Expect a bunch of points in this one, but in a shootout, I'm more comfortable siding with the team that has the best ability to run the ball late. Even if Detroit was going to have a full-strength Reggie Bush (they won't), I still wouldn't trust their ability to choke out the last few minutes as well as a team that just led the NFL in rushing.
THE PICK: REDSKINS
A couple of weeks ago, I'd just say "Bad teams? Home team." and moved on but given the performances of San Diego and Tennessee so far, I've been forced to amend that. One thing they have in common besides their 1-1 records is a memory of blowing substantial late leads over the Texans. When the Chargers did it in Week 1, it was comical how unsurprising it was. I figured it was just a precursor to a 5-win season, and it still may be, but they bounced back by going into Philadelphia and beating the Eagles. Given the return of long-lost health to Ryan Mathews and Antonio Gates, the San Diego offense is clicking and are flying to Tennessee fresh off of a 539-yard performance.
The Titans, for their part, beat the Steelers on opening day before vomiting up their own late advantage over the Texans. On the name value of those performances, it seems as though the Titans are capable of playing with the best the NFL has to offer but the 2013 Steelers are different in that they're terrible and the disparity in talent between Tennessee and Houston in the 4th quarter/overtime was searingly obvious.
In short, I think the Chargers are better and so I'm choosing them.
THE PICK: CHARGERS
Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens
As we just discussed, Houston is developing a nasty trend of falling behind and needing raucous 4th quarter comebacks against inferior talent to win their first two games. I've said it before here and elsewhere that I'm a big fan of the way the Texans play football and they boast one of my favorite rosters in the league. Slow starts, however, work against their typical method, forcing them away from their defense/ball-control preference. Against the Chargers or Titans, that's fine but the Ravens, in Baltimore, are not the Chargers or Titans.
Spot Joe Flacco and Ray Rice etc a lead and they're capable of shortening the game in a way Houston's first two opponents cannot. Like I said last week, the Ravens aren't as bad as Peyton Manning made them look on opening day and the Texans have shown that if they don't consistently get to the quarterback, their are chinks in the back end of their defense. The Baltimore offense, which takes more downfield shots than any team in the NFL the last two years, is designed to exploit that exact weakness. Besides, I think the potential loss/limitation of Andre Johnson takes more out of the Houston offense than the potential loss/limitation of Rice does, as the dropoff from Rice to Bernard Pierce is smaller than the dropoff from Johnson to... yeah. Neutral field, I lean Texans but in Baltimore I'm putting my money on the Ravens.
THE PICK: RAVENS
The Patriots offense is struggling, certainly by their standards, but they still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick whereas the Buccaneers have Josh Freeman frantically trying to divorce Greg Schiano. The QB/HC relationship is extraordinarily important to NFL success and even if this game were in Tampa, I'd take the Pats. Set it, bet it, forget it.
THE PICK: PATRIOTS
Cute picks don't win pick 'em contests. Take the Saints and sleep soundly knowing that even if the Cardinals win, you won't lose ground to anyone outside of Arizona.
THE PICK: SAINTS
One of the toughest games of the week for me to pick, but I actually think the Panthers are a very good team despite their 0-2 record. Football Outsiders still projects them to win the NFC South which is a pretty hearty commendation when you consider they're already two games behind the Saints. The Giants are 0-2 as well and regardless of their two Super Bowl titles in the last six years, they look like a team without a defined personality. They can't run the ball, they can't cover anyone, and their vaunted pass rush isn't generating enough pressure to cover for the deficiencies in their secondary.
Both the Giants and Panthers will get right this season, but it's gonna take New York at least one more week than the Panthers.
THE PICK: PANTHERS
I don't know, you guys. Are the Dolphins really a 3-0 team waiting happen? I say yes. Ryan Tannehill (295.5 YPG, 8.2 YPA, 94.7 efficiency) is actually pretty good and he's got a number of talented options around him. Lamar Miller has the promise of an emergent star, Brian Hartline continues to get open, and Mike Wallace has added the stretch that Tannehill's arm demands.
The Falcons are still a good team, but with no Steven Jackson and with a hobbled Roddy White, that offense is likely to be pretty one-dimensional on Sunday. Now, when that one dimension is Julio Jones it's not all bad, but if Atlanta can't run the ball, pass-rushing monster Cameron Wake is gonna go bananas.
THE PICK: DOLPHINS
The top two QBs in this year's draft will be facing off for the first time but I don't actually think either rookie is a game-changing force. At least not yet. One of them, however does have an electric eel lining up next to him and the backfield and it's the same QB that has a legitimate receiving threat. CJ Spiller and Stevie Johnson give EJ Manuel an advantage that Geno Smith lacks and it'll be enough to make the difference.
THE PICK: BILLS
I know we've had a lot of fun with the thunderous whomping the Niners received in Seattle on Sunday night, but don't let that obscure your view from the reality that San Fran is still one of the best teams in the world and they're not gonna lay consecutive eggs. Trent Richardson will be entering this game with only two days of practice in which to ingest a new playbook and blocking scheme, so I think his impact will be dulled. I like Andrew Luck, I think he still might be the best QB from the class of '12, but that roster is way behind the 49ers'.
THE PICK: 49ERS
0.68% of people on ESPN are picking the Jaguars to win which, coincidentally, is the exact same percentage of the population that have a tattoo of Jacksonville native Tim Tebow. The only drama in this one will be whether the Seahawks can become the third team in 28 years to cover a 20-point spread.
THE PICK: SEAHAWKS
The Bears are good and the Steelers are awful.
THE PICK: BEARS
Scheduling this for primetime is a bit baffling to me. I mean, I get that the Raiders/Broncos rivalry mattered back when TVs only got seven channels and while I'm sure it's still important to fans of both teams, this is going to be "Law Abiding Citizen"-esque dismembering of a helpless foe at the hands of a focused, precise master. My prediction for this game is that the 4th quarter ratings are gonna suck.
THE PICK: BRONCOS