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Football Fantasy! The Rams aren’t as good as you think, Marshawn Lynch looks young again and Matt Stafford’s fingers capsize the Lions again

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The 49ers and Redskins chase costly quarterback mistakes, Blaine Gabbert tries to save his coach’s job, and the CB brotherhood radios in the last stand for two midwestern coaches in NFL week 14

Arizona Cardinals  v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/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.

Picking against the spread, Football Fantasy! had its best week of the 2017 season last Sunday (12-3) but with the last of the liquid draining from the bottle of the professional football season concerns for outcomes come more closely tied to the playoff push than probabilities: I would trade all the dimes in Fort Knox and all the memes in fortunes’ Cox for the games to fall the way I want them to rather than as predicted.

And yet, I admit keeping track of these dual tallies leaves me rather split on NFL game days: I want everything I want, as Roger Sterling once told a courtesan, and that means cheering absurdly for the Jets while seeking somehow a miracle cover for Kansas City.

Do you know what that’s like? I want to remain loyal, in this case to the #KearseKrew, but also I care enough about the proviso of public substance that—though I know I’m not letting any bettors down here—I start cheering for my expertise to not evaporate from my second fist’s glass almost before I’ve drunk from my first’s. A divided will corrupts us all in the end, which is why you don’t find the Seattle games appearing on these pages. I’m excited at the end to count what wishes look like as a tapestry against the standings, but I’m also eager to try to keep my head out of a barrel.

Beside, there’s no degree of difficulty in naming what I like.

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons

The NFC South remains a battle royal, a sailor’s knot of playoff contenders rubbing themselves tighter and tighter together. The division collectively went 1-3 last week, with New Orleans taking the only win by virtue of playing the second-place Carolina Panthers, but it’s still the only grouping in the NFL with three teams with winning records.

Atlanta can drag the Saints closer to a three-way tie with a little help from Carolina, and help the Seahawks’ prospective seeding by doing so—as long as Seattle takes care of its own business. The Falcons hold the tiebreaker over the Seahawks, of course, but no tiebreak will be necessary if New Orleans ends 13-3. With the Saints’ home-and-home versus Atlanta the best opportunities for that fourth loss, I’m opting for it to happen here on the road, with the Dirty Birds still to face the Panthers another time.

My choice: Falcons

Sharp pick: New Orleans (+2.5)

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills

We (collectively, as a planet) have already spent too much time talking about Nathan Peterman, which makes it a greater shame it looks like Peterman will resume action this week after Tyrod Taylor’s knee sprain against the New England Patriots Sunday. And a seventh loss by the Bills would presumably ensure it’s Peterman all the way down, even though the AFC playoff chase remains wide open with only five teams currently holding winning records.

Against the Colts is probably as good a chance as any for Peterman to redeem himself for the yucky outing in Los Angeles last month. Both organizations should be reminiscing for the days of Bill Polian’s front office guidance right about now, but after the Buffalo turned over its outfit already in 2017 only Indianapolis looks like it’s ready to take a fresh start again anytime soon.

My choice: Bills

Sharp pick: n/a (no line)

Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers

Seattle ticked a huge box off its list last week by beating the league-leading Philadelphia Eagles as we all know, which gives one leg up on reaching a first round bye if the Seahawks can manage to run the (damn) table. However, the chances of surpassing the Vikings for homefield advantage are much slimmer. Minnesota almost certainly needs to lose three of its final four to avoid a tiebreak scenario, since the Vikings have so far swept the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Washington Redskins and Falcons, its common opponents with Seattle, against whom the Seahawks are only 1-3.

It probably won’t happen, since Minnesota plays weaklings of the northern divisions, the Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears and Packers again after Carolina—but it’s easier to stumble often if you also stumble early. On the bright side, traveling to the Vikings for a possible NFC championship game or at any point in the playoffs could give Seattle some helpful familiarity with the eventual Super Bowl venue in Minneapolis. At very least, enclosed in glass, the environment won’t be sub-zero in January.

My choice: Panthers

Sharp pick: Carolina (+2.5)

Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals

Speaking of the CB brotherhood, here are a couple coaches who might make a 10-6 for 2018 even though neither’s results have been as bad as Hue Jackson’s, who nevertheless seems like he got some go-go juice with the firing of Sashi Brown this week, despite riding on John Fox’s and Marvin Lewis’s donkey for two years. I tend to wish both clubs 3s and 8s, but Cincinnati should make bear bait of Chicago here. Over and out, good buddy.

My choice: Bengals

Sharp pick: Cincinnati (-6)

Green Bay Packers at Cleveland Browns

The Packers have been playing well since Thanksgiving, so few things would be sweeter than Cleveland stealing its first win against Green Bay right on time to clinch the Packers’ first missed postseason since 2008, on the eve of Aaron Rodgers’ eligibility to return to action in week 15.

My choice: Browns

Sharp pick: Green Bay (-3)

San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans

The Texans’ 2016 experiment with Brock Osweiler and good fortune with Deshaun Watson should serve as a caution flag for San Francisco throwing an absurd amount of money at an unproven quarterback when dynamic passers can be discovered more cheaply using canny draft choices. Fortunately the 49ers are unbelievably stupid.

My choice: Texans

Sharp pick: Houston (-2.5)

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs

The Raiders haven’t been very good, but they still have a chance to bring Marshawn Lynch back to the playoffs by seizing the AFC West lead from the Chiefs in Arrowhead Sunday. Lynch’s ejection and suspension for leaving the sidelines and inadvertently heaving a referee the last time these teams faced seems to have legitimately revived this Oakland squad and refreshed himself.

Up until that fracas Lynch had looked washed during a four-game losing streak when he had 145 yards on 42 carries and the Raiders trailed 14-10 at home. After Lynch’s intervention, disqualification and secret return to the Coliseum bleachers, Oakland stormed back for an extraordinary win on an untimed down and are 4-1 since, excluding the game Marshawn missed. Meanwhile the rest, during which Lynch practiced with his high school team and attempted a high-unicycle stunt ...

... sparked a throwback period for the former Seattle star: Lynch as 292 yards on 68 attempts in his four games after the disciplinary episode.

Harder than it looks indeed.

My choice: Raiders

Sharp pick: Kansas City (-4)

Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For the second year in a row Matthew Stafford has a bum throwing hand and, while a 6-4 start yielded a playoff berth for Detroit in 2016 it was Stafford’s dislocated thumb that stirred a three-game losing streak to finish 9-7 and cost the Lions the NFC North. Detroit appeared a Wild Card dark horse again after beginning 6-4 this season but the losing streak probably began too early this time around with an even steeper playoff hill to climb.

Their schedule sets up more nicely with three dreadful opponents and a probably-disqualified Packers group rather than the three-playoff-team gauntlet from last December. However the off-field competition is far too great for the Lions to revisit the tournament in back to back years for the first time since 1995.

My choice: Lions

Sharp pick: n/a (no line)

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants

I’m no fanatic about Steve Spagnuolo, who you remember led the St. Louis Rams to 10 total wins in three years from 2009 to 2011, but teams who make sudden coaching changes tend to go one of two ways and New York looks ripe to be one of the groups to play more effectively in the absence of their middle school science teacher of a former coach Ben McAdoo. With the second-worst record in football, the Giants still have a lot of young talent on defense and enough injuries to give those upstarts a chance to play this month. New York has no real reason to want to win games—which is exactly why it might be foolish enough to play spoiler in its division.

My choice: Giants

Sharp pick: New York (+4)

Tennessee Titans at Arizona Cardinals

Adrian Peterson might not play in this contest with a neck injury, and he hasn’t been useful since early November anyway (65 percent of Peterson’s yards, and 48 percent of this carries, have come in just two games since joining the Cardinals). David Johnson can’t come back for two more weeks anyway, if he comes back at all. So it will be fun to see Tennessee’s secretly excellent run defense (third in yards per carries allowed and total yards) force Blaine Gabbert to try to save Bruce Arians’s job.

My choice: Titans

Sharp pick: Tennessee (-3)

New York Jets at Denver Broncos

Jermaine Kearse has six receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown lifetime against the Broncos (including playoffs duh) and is the fourth-leading receiver in the NFL in both catches and yards the last two weeks.

What’s wild is Kearse’s teammate, Robby Anderson is the fifth-leading player in those categories in the same two-week span. The Denver defense, with a briefly-historic pass rush and excellent secondary play, is supposed to dominate against the pass but it matches up horribly against the Jets according to DVOA. While the Broncos do perform well against opponents’ top receivers (that’s Anderson), they are mediocre against number twos: So expect Kearse to again take flight as New York doesn’t bother to run at all in the thin mountain air.

My choice: Jets

Sharp pick: Denver (+1)

Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Chargers

Washington’s receivers don’t like Kirk Cousins, not one bit, but Kirk Cousins really likes his receivers and believes he has a fantastic relationship with them. The District of Columbia seems like the right kind of place for stories like these, but I can’t understand why anyone would be credulous of Cousins saying the only thing he can possibly say on the record. I also don’t understand why anyone could mistake Cousins for “one of the league’s most productive quarterbacks” as the Post’s Dan Steinberg calls him (Cousins has a high yards per attempt and doesn’t get sacked a lot thanks to an offensive line that has been superior for most of his tenue, but he is 12th in touchdown percentage and 18th in interception percentage among 34 players with at least 800 passes since 2014)—decent quarterbacks have value, for sure, but Cousins seems like a goon who fits everything Andy Benoit likes about the position without having generated any additional value (the Redskins are 23-25-1 with Cousins as the starter since 2014) for a franchise that keeps paying him increasingly escalating salaries as the franchise (Cousins makes $10 million more in 2017 than Andy Dalton, who is a reasonable comparison. He also makes $10 million more than Russell Wilson or Cam Newton).

It makes no sense and I don’t mind as long as Washington keeps ruining itself for this dope, or the 49ers want to try it as long rumored. But it’s looking increasingly like some other fun team will bid on him in 2018 and sacrifice years of development for a guy who should be advertising cereal, not leading a professional football team. It’s embarrassing for everyone.

My choice: Chargers

Sharp pick: Los Angeles (-6)

Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams

The Eagles and Carson Wentz are who we (I) thought they were, it turns out. But Los Angeles isn’t much better. The Rams are the darlings of the league, having won two more games already in 12 contests than Jeff Fisher managed in his best 16-game season, and nearly as many as Spagnuolo did in three full years combined (Scott Linehan, who also coached three years to 11 total wins, didn’t do much better). L.A. has a super talented defense led by a famously successful coordinator, and a young dynamic offense designed by a boy genius head coach. Yet Brian Burke’s Football Power Index at ESPN continues to rate the Rams just ninth in the NFL, behind 8-4 Seattle, 7-5 Atlanta and even the crosstown arrival 6-6 Los Angeles Chargers.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Sean McVay’s offense and Wade Phillips’s defense are each independently placed 11th. The only unit where the Rams have a top-five performance per FPI is special teams, thanks to long-legged kicker Greg Zuerlein and crafty punter Johnny Hekker.

That transition game component might help explain why other analytic models, like Football Outsiders’ DVOA, prefer Los Angeles: The Rams are top in total-season efficiency thanks in large part to its +8.5 percent special teams DVOA (more than a quarter of its total rating, and almost half of the difference between L.A. and the Seahawks). FPI appears to weight special teams less heavily: The Rams’ special teams component is only 11 percent of its total score, and the best special teams rating makes up less than eight percent of the most outlying team total.

But that still doesn’t tell us why FPI is so tepid about Los Angeles’s widely-celebrated offensive and defensive performance. Part of it might be how the Rams began the year as the 29th overall squad, since FPI includes preseason adjustments in its formula. But those adjustments are supposed to be greatly diminished at this point in the season, and other teams have advanced much more quickly than L.A. even in the last month: For example, since early November Philadelphia and the Patriots have gained nearly 2.0 points in FPI score, while the Saints are up 2.5. New England started as the best team, but that should have already been inflating its score if preseason expectations were the cause. Even the Jets, rated lower than the Rams early on, are also up 2.0 points.

Since November, in contrast, L.A. is up only 0.3 points, despite going 3-1 with two blowouts and beating now-third ranked New Orleans. The key to understanding this difference is looking at expected points added, the prime factor of Burke’s system. Although the Rams are tied with Philadelphia in total scoring, and second in the NFL in point differential, Los Angeles is not a top-five team in expected points on either offense or defense; according to Pro Football Reference it’s seventh in both. That still combines for a pretty good football team—just not the elite of the elite like the Rams frequent blowout wins might suggest.

More importantly, what it signals is that L.A. has been benefiting from field position more than sustainable offense and defensive productivity. Special teams is a real influence on football outcomes, but the reason it’s weighted less than the other phases is that it’s not as predictive, even with the Rams’ superior talent and coaching by John Fassel, as you can tell by the team’s overall record with that same group intact during Fisher’s reign. So depending on how you want to view the kicking element, FPI might be a more accurately moderate assessment of the true improvement by Los Angeles in 2017.

My choice: Rams

Sharp pick: Philadelphia (+2.5)

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

Long live the free.

My choice: Ravens

Sharp pick: Pittsburgh (-5.5)

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

Things have gotten so bad in Miami, even after a big win Sunday the local newspapers are writing reports about marginal players the team didn’t add to its roster this week.

My choice: Dolphins

Sharp pick: Miami (+11)


On the year:

My choices (straight up): 68-112 (6-9 last week)

Sharp picks (against the spread): 87-81-4 (12-3 last week)