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Football Fantasy! A Bruce Arians-Chuck Pagano deathmatch in Week 2 as Le’Veon Bell fights for more carries

Imagining Cassius Marsh’s comeback, the plight of Trevor Siemian, ongoing adventures of Jermaine Kearse and an albino giraffe leading the Bears against the Buccaneers

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Note: If you came looking for fantasy football recommendations, I apologize. 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.

I was running short of time when I posted last week and probably didn’t introduce this series as explicitly as I should have. It’s also going to be an evolving enterprise as I learn what works best and listen to how Seahawks fans want to learn about the rest of the NFL games. So I’ll start with some adjustment right away. But let me first explain the picks.

Football Fantasy! got off to a banging start from the beginning when a group of extras from the Kansas high school football scene in Superman defeated the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the league’s Thursday kickoff—not only beating the too-generous point spread (as expected) but the actual K.C. Chiefs actually winning outright on the road (to my astonishment, but also as described). This description of hope is the purpose of Football Fantasy!, charted as the distance between my dream scenarios and the likeliest results. That’s to try to give a portrait of fan experience consuming football in the broader NFL ecosystem outside Seattle’s matchup, where we want it to go one way but too often it’s the other way.

The picks I give as “my choices” will be personal, instinctive preferences for which teams I hope win in a given week. These decisions come down to things like beloved players, grudges I hold against certain opponents, running storylines from the season, subtle hierarchies of secondary allegiances and rivalries, style matchups and other factors unlimited as depths of memory, and local and varied as the surfaces of the heart. When other matters are equal, I will tend to side with upsets and rotating chaos or general whimsy, just as if I were watching teams I never heard of in a college basketball tournament. I’m picking desired outcomes, not predicting results.

But because few readers give a shit about my personal desires with nothing at stake, no matter how whimsical, I’m also including “sharp picks” made against bookmakers’ point spreads. It’s not that I think I’m an expert handicapper, so please don’t take these selections to your local book—I’m much better at gambling when I can use strategy against a live opponent to generate value than I am trying to beat house odds. The only point of these picks is to track the performance of raw emotional choices against a more standardized approach, almost like a control (the sharp picks will draw from data-driven models of team strength and a mix of critical and common-sense analysis of betting lines).

Hypothesis: the “fantasy” outcomes will do poorly, and the touted picks will be close to break-even. (Cue: “If young metro don’t trust you…”)

The difference between these two styles adds an extra degree of difficulty, too, because putting too many daffy underdogs straight up against rational favorites to cover will leave me vulnerable to getting middled often (when the favorite doesn’t beat the spread but the dog still fails to win, dealing me losses in both). It’s the worst alternative to smartly hedging bets. But we’re in the spirit of storytelling here, not logic.

To make this at all entertaining, I’m going to play up the fantasy folklore element by mixing in a little fan fiction, sharing not just my wacky picks but imaginary scenes and dramas I hope will unfold on the Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays in question. All the while, I’ll fold in genuine football news and analysis to try to give you a glimpse of what’s really going on around the NFL in 2017. On to the picks:

Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals

You may think the Seahawks’ offensive was an eyesore against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, but these two teams put up just seven points combined. Both offensive lines may be worse than Seattle’s, and now Deshaun Watson (who I think will be a star long-term) makes his first career start with a partly twisted ankle. Also working against Houston:

J.J. Watt is already returning from double back surgery and last week had a finger bone exit his flesh. Watt will trade jerseys with Andy Dalton after this one, but only because Watt’s will be so bloody it counts as part of the plasma transfusion Dalton receives in the locker room.

My choice: Bengals

Sharp pick: Cincinnati (-6.5)

Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have never lost at home against a rookie quarterback since John Harbaugh took over the reins, going a perfect 6-0 including 3-0 against Cleveland rookies just in the last five years! The new face of the Browns Deshone Kizer is much better—and seven years younger—than Brandon Weeden was when that poor streak began in 2012. After Kizer ends Baltimore’s scoreless sheet for the season, embarking on his career as the soon greatest ever, Harbaugh will be forced to concede his staff didn’t count on facing a guy with such an incredible combination of gifts: “Imagine taking Kessler’s intellect and Manziel’s preparation and putting it on a guy with Connor Shaw’s body.”

My choice: Browns

Sharp pick: Cleveland (+8)

Buffalo Bills at Carolina Panthers

Julius Peppers eschews the standard running start to stand in a three-point stance, waiting for the ball the leave its place in the grass. As soon as it does the 37-year-old former basketball player blasts past the scrimmage line, flooding through a maze of Buffalo blockers. One Bill attempts to take him on, but Peppers’s famous swim move makes him still too fast and slippery even at this age. Peppers can see his target in his sights now, as if in slow motion. But another shape steers into his vision. A backup running back gathering himself for contact, a last ditch human shield to prevent Peppers stopping the play so soon. The veteran shivers the young back hard with both arms, sending him wobbling off the line between Peppers and Buffalo quarterback Joe Webb. Tyrod Taylor, on the sideline, chews his mouthpiece nervously. Smoke appears to curl out of his nostrils as Peppers barrels toward Webb, who’s standing motionless in the end zone. He and Peppers have performed this dance before, many times, many times. In Chicago, in Minneapolis; Green Bay, over and over; even laughing about it during their training camp together in Carolina. Slowly, calmly, Webb surrenders the play. He kneels right there, in the bright blue Charlotte turf. Peppers jogs past, avoiding a penalty. He’s done his job. Webb gallops over to the sideline, slaps Taylor’s helmet softly. Bills coach Sean McDermott isn’t even mad. Buffalo has already given up competing for the playoffs in the 2017 season. And also it’s just a touchback. A touchback. This was only a kickoff. Ball comes out to the 25.

Julius Peppers plays special teams now. Yep.

My choice: Bills

Sharp pick: Buffalo (+7.5)

Arizona Cardinals at Indianapolis Colts

Here’s my prediction and fantasy: Bruce Arians will get fired even before his former boss Chuck Pagano.

My choice: Colts

Sharp pick: Arizona (-7)

Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags thrashed last week’s sympathetic pick in Houston, but now Jacksonville is also picking its city up after a hurricane and flooding. The Titans and Marcus Mariota, meanwhile, badly need to gather a road win before hosting the Seahawks if they want to get afloat in the playoff standings. Oh, who am I kidding, this is the AFC South. They have plenty of time.

Mariota didn’t generate any touchdowns Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and the Jaguars are arguably a better defense this year. Still I’m pegging Mariota for two throwing scores and one rushing TD, but Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue matches him with two sacks and a touchdown run back of his own.

My choice: Titans

Sharp pick: Tennessee (-2)

New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints

Two of the more consistent teams of the 2010s cross paths Sunday in the Superdome. New England has been 12-4 four of the past five years. The Saints have been 7-9 four of the past five years.

New Orleans is a town known for its magic spells; I say Cassius Marsh overcomes his wretched first game as a Patriot and takes down Drew Brees once or twice in the backfield. Afterward, Brees whispers in Tom Brady’s ear during a hug at the 50-yard line: “I should have restructured for less money.”

My choice: Saints

Sharp pick: New England (-6.5)

Philadelphia Eagles at Kansas City Chiefs

After the Eagles beat the Washington Redskins 30-17 last week, a Sporting News reporter praised Philly quarterback Michael Vick for his double spin and broken tackle that turned into a 58-yard pass and score. The reporter then corrected himself (“That was Donovan McNabb throwing that pass. Correction again: It was Randall Cunningham”) before finally admitting it was 2017 Eagles starter Carson Wentz. That reporter is an idiot.

Before the 2016 draft, Mike Mayock also said Wentz’s mobility would grant him an active backfield mobility to keep plays alive and throw downfield like Cam Newton, but we know better. Wentz’s 300-yard outing looked improved from a year ago, it’s true, but Wentz strung together a few good games to start his rookie year too without it meaning he’s motherfucking Randall Cunningham.

Philadelphia’s defense can help out, but Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz isn’t doing his unit any favors by enforcing Doug Pederson’s ridiculous rule outlawing sleeveless shirts.

Do Schwartz and Pederson know the way most NFL players cut their game jerseys counts as going sleeveless?

My choice: Chiefs

Sharp pick: Philadelphia (+5.5)

Minnesota Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers

I’ve got no grudge against Le’Veon Bell, apart from wanting to see him on another team, and it does no more use to overreact to this first game as any other small sample result from week 1, but his 10-carry 32-yard rushing day (with three catches for 15 yards) together with a passive aggressive response to his role the team tried to spin into a “do your job” type humility afterward for now hints at a widening divide between the Steelers’ star tailback and the organization. After opting for a one-year deal over a longer non-guaranteed offer during the summer, the forecast here is that Bell finds that other team for which to peddle his wish for a heavier workload in the offseason.

My choice: Vikings

Sharp pick: Pittsburgh (-5.5)

Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I highlighted Chicago’s sad run of wide receiver luck already before Kevin White tore his ACL Sunday against the Falcons. When I texted my Bears-fan friend about it to commiserate, he skipped right past the injury to ask if I was sorry for Chicago’s running back Jordan Howard dropping a potential game-winning touchdown, or another potential game winner dropped earlier by Markus Wheaton. Yeesh.

Chicago may have an harder time running the ball against Tampa’s defensive tackle group than it did in its comeback effort versus Atlanta (46 of its 126 rushing yards came on a first half scamper by rookie Tarik Cohen; only 27 of the team’s total came after the intermission, on eight second-half carries). That means Mike Glennon is going to be trying to dodge the Buccaneers’ pass rush like, like …. Well I found some footage.

My choice: Bears

Sharp pick: Chicago (+7)

Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Chargers

Poor Chargers. Miami already missed a home game thanks to Hurricane Irma. Nobody even goes to Dolphins home games, but Miami fans will still outnumber Los Angeles’s in the L.A. debut because people there care even less.

My choice: Chargers

Sharp pick: Miami (+4)

New York Jets at Oakland Raiders

Easily the Jets’ most productive receiver already is (get this?) Jermaine Kearse, who caught seven of nine targets for a very Josh McCownish 8.4-yard average. At that pace Kearse can match his 2016 total in just six games.

In the third quarter, with Oakland leading 17-3, Kearse will run a flare out to the flat where McCown misreads the coverage, tossing it right on a line to Bruce Irvin still sprinting into his drop. Irvin runs it back for the Raiders third touchdown. From the Oakland sideline, Marshawn Lynch tells Kearse to keep his head up, and invites him to join Lynch and Irvin at Taco Bell after the game.

My choice: Raiders

Sharp pick: Oakland (-14)

Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos

This week Chase Stuart pointed out Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian’s 2016 season was almost identical stats to Johnny Unitas’s All-Pro 1963 season.

The good news: Unitas is a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, and in ’63 Unitas’s rates were around 20 percent better than the league-average NFL quarterback. He led the league in interception percentage.

The bad news: Despite throwing interceptions even more rarely than Unitas did, increased passing efficiency and rules changes have so advanced in the last 55 years that Siemian finished 15th in interception percentage. In 1963, only 13 quarterbacks even qualified for that statistic.

Forced to try to keep up with the Dallas offense Sunday, Siemien throws at least two picks—and in 2017 the Broncos’ 25 year old can’t even keep up again with the 84-year-old dead former Colt.

My choice: Broncos

Sharp pick: Dallas (-2.5)

Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay against his ex-team! Speaking of quarterbacks not continuing on their pace, something tells me Jared Goff won’t match the efficiency of his kickoff outing (72.4 percent passing, 10.6 ANY/A, 7 for 10 on third downs). Even so, a late Kirk Cousins interception blows it for Washington, because few things can be funner for the NFL that seeing L.A. get all excited about a Rams hot start only for the new regime to Ram all over again.

My choice: Rams

Sharp pick: Washington (+2.5)

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

Anticipating Seattle getting into a possible late-season Rochambeau in the standings for home field advantage against both these squads, I’m split about this game. But with the Packers already holding a tiebreaker, the Seahawks need those Green Bay losses to start piling up. Plus fuck the Packers.

My choice: Falcons

Sharp pick: Atlanta (-3)

Detroit Lions at New York Giants

I started this post suggesting Cincinnati and Houston might rival Seattle for the worst offensive line in the league after week 1, but the Giants are right there in that dismal contest. The difference is, as poorly as Russell Wilson seemed to adapt to the pressure at times against Green Bay, at least he’s not a bobbing fishing lure out there like Eli Manning. The fantasy here is for New York to unleash Geno Smith to try to engineer something more productive out of Ben McAdoo’s offense.

Geno’s already breathing fire this week, after one of his critics from his Jets days turned up in a federal racketeering probe for trying to pyramid his gambling debts off on other suckers:

Get ’em Geno. And remember kids—never bet real money on football. This is all a dream.

My choice: Lions

Sharp pick: Detroit (+3.5)


On the year:

My choices (straight up): 6-8

Sharp picks (against the spread): 8-6