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Football Fantasy! Jamal Agnew is surpisingly spry, AFC vs NFC and John Ross’s feud with Marvin Lewis

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Why the Rams-Vikings matchup has got me jazzily aroused, what happened to Tyrod Taylor, and enter Dak Prescott to rescue the Seahawks hopes for a playoff bye

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Houston Texans v Los Angeles Ram Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Note: If you came looking for fantasy football recommendations, I don’t have anything for you. This season, Football Fantasy! here at Field Gulls will offer a recurring daydream considering the weekly football schedule from a perspective of entertaining narratives and wished-for results across the non-Seattle Seahawks landscape. Here, we welcome storylines and silliness to topple other interests from week to week as we deliver the lowdown on the rest of the league from the land of make believe. For more detailed explanation of the picks, look here.

One of the most meaningless subplots of the NFL season is the overall records of the two conferences against each other. I enjoy paying attention to this stuff because I came of age in an era when the Seahawks played in the AFC while at the same time the NFC dominated its rival conference to the tune of 13 straight Super Bowl wins from 1984 to 1996, and 15 out of 16 across the length of the peak. At the time, I remember this statistical bunch being used to discredit the entirety of the AFC field year over year and even suggest the inherent superiority of the national conference owing to its more direct continuity to the original, pre-merger NFL. What people making those arguments back then never seemed to recall was that the AFL/AFC had won 11 of the first fifteen Super Bowls—and then since the Denver Broncos broke through in 1997 and 1998 the younger conference has again so well dominated that the historical count is now split almost exactly even: 26-25 in favor of the NFL/NFC.

Even after Seattle joined the dark side in 2002 my ancestral inferiority complex remains proudly loyal to the more awkward, alienated AFC conference. And so all else being equal I tend to cheer on those teams in interdivisional games. Longtime readers of this space will also note my especial fascination with those queerer, rarer matchups so it’s no surprise I like to keep track of how the conferences are doing head to head.

This year, the NFC has actually gained the upper hand in such games for just the fourth time since the advent of the four-division rotation in 2002, and quite dominantly so: NFC teams lead AFC teams already 24-14, which is the widest edge since the AFC destroyed its older cousins 44-20 since 2004. Unusually, this shift doesn’t come at the cost of any traditional power, with the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs still atop the AFC divisions (although you may point to the Broncos as a recent favorite who fell off).

Rather, it seems to be the total strengthening of the depth of the NFC—a herald not so bright for the Seahawks liking. CBS’s Jared Dubin even points out that the six NFC squads currently in playoff position are the same six having already completed three games against the weaker-at-large AFC, presenting the finding as a danger to Seattle (although the fact of having already finished its interconference slate is contradictorily even worse news for the Seahawks’ Monday night foes, the relatively struggling Atlanta Falcons).

Anyway, since the divisions do not cross-pollenate as much as they used to and teams meet one another at different times of the season, with different injury scenarios and stages of development, these numbers probably tell us way less than those conclusions suggest. There are also 26 more such games left on the calendar and plenty of chances for the AFC to close the deficit. But is another goody factor for us to monitor as the playoff chases keep getting interrupted by these cross conference matchups that may or may not have less bearing on the final stakes.

Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers

As Thursday football goes this is a pretty intriguing game of two hopeful division winners—okay one division hopeful and the Steelers, who might clinch the once-competitive AFC North as early as the first week in December. Either way Tennessee looks at least a likely Wild Card qualifier in a conference that now has five good teams, 10 rather bad teams and one team (Buffalo Bills) giving up, so this might end up being a true playoff preview.

The matchup preference is obvious, and given relatively low scoring offenses and Pittsburgh’s propensity to struggle early in games this year I would be inclined to expect a Titans cover. But though the Steelers are almost famous the last few years for finding unexpected difficulties against bad teams on the road, they’ve been spectacular at home (45-18 since 2010, with 32 of those wins by more than a touchdown; and 15-5 since 2015)—they only played at night at home twice in the last two years, but those results were wins by 29 and 35 points.

As we saw last week, Pittsburgh still wins on the road, but they have had far fewer big wins; so though they looked challenged at times, perhaps the scariest part about the Steelers’ 7-2 start is how they survived a rude road schedule that leaves them with five of their last seven at home.

My Choice: Titans

Sharp pick: Pittsburgh (-7)

Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears

One of the funnest overlooked characters of the football season has been Lions kick return specialist Jamal Agnew. Agnew has two touchdowns already on punt returns and averages more than 18 yards per attempt so far on 19 returns after wresting the job away from Golden Tate. The WCC product out of San Diego also handles kickoffs and has been so dynamic that the nominal cornerback also features lately on Detroit’s offense, with touches already both from the backfield and split wide.

The Lions’ special teams also gains tremendous value from Matt Prater, who is only 19 of 22 on the year but all three misses were from beyond 55 yards. With stars like Agnew and Prater helping maximize field position and scoring potential, only the Los Angeles Rams have been better as a unit.

My choice: Bears

Sharp pick: Detroit (-3)

Baltimore Ravens at Green Bay Packers

Let’s get some help from Baltimore and end any potential Aaron Rodgers drama before it sprouts from the permafrost in Green Bay.

My choice: Ravens

Sharp pick: Baltimore (-2)

Jacksonville Jaguars at Cleveland Browns

If the Browns’ streak of terrible play and early draft picks ever ends they may be looking into their future this Sunday, at a Jags team that finally leveraged its failure into a productive young group with money to spend. If a playoff run spooks Jacksonville into continuing with Blake Bortles instead of picking up Tyrod Taylor or drafting somebody who might truly drive the offense, then both franchises could remain in quarterback hell.

My choice: Jaguars

Sharp pick: Cleveland (+7.5)

Arizona Cardinals at Houston Texans

It’s definitely not too late to get Bruce Arians fired. Remember, if not for the San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cardinals are winless.

My choice: Texans

Sharp pick: Houston (+1.5)

Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota Vikings

The only good lower-back tattoo I ever saw was a Tristero trumpet rendered between the pants waistband and the words "BORN HORNY". Anyway that’s what the helmets in this game will make me think of.

My choice: Vikings

Sharp pick: Los Angeles (+2.5)

Washington Redskins at New Orleans Saints

The priority to stop the Saints momentum has become increasingly clear to all NFC teams, yet even after their string of seven straight blowout wins eight points feels like a heavy number to lay. Still Washington was the only team in recent memory to yield any run success to the Seahawks, so they don’t appear primed to halt New Orleans’s new double trouble offense.

My choice: Redskins

Sharp pick: New Orleans (-8)

Kansas City Chiefs at New York Giants

The Giants are so bad in 2017 that there’s nothing super compelling about this matchup. But nonetheless I get a twist of excitement seeing these bold color schemes head to head. New York and Kansas City have never played against each other in a Super Bowl but you just know these bright lines would feel extra epic.

My choice: Chiefs

Sharp pick: New York (+10.5)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Miami Dolphins

Hey it’s the Hurricane Irma Bowl! Meaning these Florida teams still have not had a true bye week all season, and won’t get their rest until the playoffs are blowing swiftly along without them.

My choice: Dolphins

Sharp pick: Tampa Bay (+1)

Buffalo Bills at Los Angeles Chargers

When Buffalo traded its best receiver at the start of the season everyone knew it had no intention of competing in 2017—only problem was with his own future hanging in the balance Tyrod Taylor powered the Bills to five wins in the first seven games. Then mixed results in back to back losses (including against what’s become a juggernaut Saints defense) gave the organization the excuse it long wanted to drop the hammer on Taylor’s success, naming Nathan Peterman the new starter against the Chargers (Taylor’s contract had been left over from the previous front office regime and the new coach-GM combination were excited to start over).

The bewildering timing of the shift while Buffalo is still in playoff position, and some of the ridiculous conversations that followed (interesting how Andy Benoit doesn’t scope the irony of insisting a few bad judgments made while looking at a football field should result in someone losing their job), makes me annoyed enough with Buffalo’s leadership to want Peterman to fail for Taylor’s sake. But as long as the possibility is mathematically there I’m still going to hope the Bills manage to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

My choice: Bills

Sharp pick: Los Angeles (-4)

Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos

I defended Marvin Lewis for a long time both when Cincinnati was a plucky up and comer in the AFC and when it graduated to perennial playoff disappointment. And while I am more desiring of program stability than most when it comes to firing a guy after just two losing seasons when a fellow has built up as much organizational equity as has Lewis—mostly because a talent rebuild seems more salient—the Bengals appear genuinely listless and underachieving right now and famously player-friendly Lewis has taken to growling at his own squad: Lewis blamed John Ross’s attitude after an incomplete deep ball in the loss to Tennessee last week, and suggested he has withheld snaps from Ross even after Cincinnati’s top pick worked to back healthy from a knee injury.

That’s a foul move by Lewis, downright Ariansesque, and not just because I’m a fan of Ross (I call him Koo-wi-s-gu-wi); other teammates have Ross’s back on the Bengals and the rift could grow symbolic of Lewis’s mismanagement as Cincinnati continues to decline. In a world where even longtime Zimbabwe tyrant Robert Mugabe got dethroned this week, change is always possible. Then again there’s also a chance the Bengals move on from Cincinnati itself before they remove Lewis’s power.

My choice: Bengals

Sharp pick: Denver (-2.5)

New England Patriots at Oakland Raiders

Long live Marshawn Lynch.

My choice: Raiders

Sharp pick: New England (-6.5)

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys

DAK PRESCOTT SZN

My choice: Cowboys

Sharp pick: Dallas (+4)


On the year:

My choices (straight up): 51-86 (3-10 last week)

Sharp picks (against the spread): 61-65-3 (5-8 last week)