Friday, October 9, 2015

NFL Week 5 Primer (With Picks): Trends Emerge

Kam Chancellor's return has put the "boom" back in Seattle's secondary, but how will they deal with a red-hot Cincinnati offense?
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

We've seen four weeks of football, which means we have five data points - the four games we've seen from (most) teams, plus our preseason expectations. Week Four presented a lot of compelling evidence. The three unbeaten teams we were still on the fence about - Carolina, Atlanta, and Cincinnati - all put a big whoopin' on their opponents. All three teams sport average scoring margins of +9 or better, which, through a quarter of the season, seems like we can say is not a coincidence.

At the very least, we can separate the league into "have"s and "have-not"s, with very few exceptions (for example, I still have no flippin' idea what to make of Minnesota and St. Louis). We know which teams are good and which teams are bad, the only questions that remain are with regards to degrees.

That being said, one trend that seems to have emerged is when the Thursday night game is a Push, we clean house on Sunday. Week 1's Thursday game (Patriots-Steelers) was a push - Jeremy finished the week 13-2-1, and Joe clocked in at 9-6-1 . Week 4's Thursday game was a push, we both finished the weekend 9-5-1. (NOTE: We originally picked the Indianapolis-Jacksonville game based on a line that assumed Andrew Luck was playing. When it was ruled Sunday that he was out, Joe obviously stuck with his pick of Jacksonville +9, and Jeremy switched his pick to Jacksonville +3.5, where the line eventually closed at kickoff time - so we both ended up winning, but with two different lines). It could have been even better, too. If New Orleans had made their game-winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation, they would have won by three (and we both would have covered with Dallas +5).

Game(s) of The Week

Seattle @ Cincinnati (1:00 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Seattle's defense has looked impressive since Kam Chancellor's return, and Cincinnati's offense has looked impressive all season. One of those things will likely have to give. The NFC West is suddenly far more topsy-turvy than most were expecting, and somehow the AFC North has sprung wide open for Cincinnati to run away with, so there's a weird situation in that whichever team loses this game could end up being totally fine in the long run.

Jacksonville @ Tampa Bay (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Hahahaha just kidding.

St. Louis @ Green Bay (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

We all know that Green Bay is 4-0 and a potential juggernaut in the NFC. The weird one is St. Louis. They beat Seattle in Week 1 and then beat what was looking like a potential juggernaut in Arizona last weekend. (Granted, they won the two games by a combined five points and conceivably could have lost both if a few plays went differently, but there's something to be said of the fact that they sacked Russell Wilson six times and dominated the trenches for 60+ minutes, and never trailed in the game against Arizona).

But then, on the other side of the coin, they lost to Washington and Pittsburgh, looking terrible in both games. They could be a team that plays to the level of their competition. We'll see how they look here.

Here Are The Picks We Agree On (Home Teams In CAPS)

Jacksonville (+3) over TAMPA BAY

JC: I don't know and I don't care. I'll just take the points.

JP: Famous Jameis is a turnover machine (he's tied for the league lead with 7 interceptions with, uh, Andrew Luck, who has only played in three games. What?), and the Jaguars have shown they can beat a bad team (Miami), even when they don't play a perfect game. 

Buffalo (-2.5) over TENNESSEE

JC: For some reason I have visions dancing in my head of Buffalo's front four beating the hell out of a totally unprepared Marcus Mariota. So far this year, Tennessee has played Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Indianapolis - they haven't seen anything even remotely resembling what Buffalo's defensive line is capable of.

JP: All the stuff you said, but Tyrod Taylor really needs to show something this week. He got off to a better than expected start, but last week's stinker against the Giants hung that defense out to dry, and the Bills only need competent QB play to win. We'll see if they have it this week. 

Chicago (+9) over KANSAS CITY

JC: Are we sure that Kansas City is even good? They killed Houston to open the season, but it's starting to look more and more likely that Houston sucks. Since then, their offense has looked weak, their pass rush has disappeared, and Alex Smith has had the stuffing beat out of him (he's been sacked SEVENTEEN TIMES in the last three weeks). Yeah, Chicago might be the worst team in football, but the Chiefs are giving NINE points? Please.

JP: Agreed, this line is about three points too high, especially as the Bears come off their first win against a pretty good Oakland team. It should be noted that Jay Cutler is back for Chicago and, while he's not great, he is such an upgrade over Jimmy Clausen that I shudder to think what this line would be if Clausen were taking snaps (maybe KC -14.5?).

Also, as bad as Cutler is, he can't touch Alex Smith this year, who is DEAD LAST among starting quarterbacks with a meager 30.1 QBR (he's actually ranked 33rd as BOTH Houston QBs rank ahead of him. Think about that). Cutler is  right where he always is, in the middle, ranked 16th, so I'll take the mediocre guy coming off a win over the guy putting up historically awful numbers coming off a pair of double-digit losses.

New Orleans (+5.5) over PHILADELPHIA

JC: Again, are we sure that the Eagles should be giving more than a field goal against anyone? Their defense is trash and they haven't had a complete offensive game yet. New Orleans showed last week that they can at least take care of business against crappy NFC East teams, so I'll take them to cover.

JP: Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got somethin' to say, but nothin' comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish, and the mo fos act like they forgot about Drew.

St. Louis (+9) over GREEN BAY

JC: I'll ride with the "St. Louis plays to the level of their competion" narrative for exactly one week.

JP: Yeah, I think the Rams are secretly good, but still figuring out which buttons they need to press on offense, and how aggressive to be on defense. Tough to pick them outdoors against the Pack, but the St. Louis has found its running game, and we know it can rush the passer without blitzing. Those are two things that will come in handy at Lambeau. 

Arizona (-3) over DETROIT

JC: Arizona sputtered for the first time last week, and Detroit has had some touch of bad luck, but I just can't buy a team slowing Arizona's offense down when they can't run the ball. If you can't bleed the clock, it's tough to control possession, and Arizona will have ample chances to do whatever it is they do on offense.

JP: Surprised this line isn't higher, but I guess the Lions did basically beat Seattle last week. Either way, I think the Cards are for real, and the Lions are as inconsistent as it gets on both sides of the ball.

New England (-9.5) over DALLAS

JC: Like, conceptually, I understand that it's incredibly unlikely that the Patriots go 16-0 straight up, let alone 16-0 against the spread. But I'm not sure that I'm ever actually going to pick against them. They just seem to be clicking on all cylinders. If Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were healthy, this would be a pretty sweet matchup, but without those two guys, I don't think Dallas will be able to hang.

JP: Yeah, I'd probably pick New England with this line even if they were facing a fully healthy Cowboys team, let alone this bunch. I'm not ready to start the undefeated talk yet (though every sports talk radio station in New England started it after Week 2. Jinx much?), but it's hard to see me picking against the Pats for the foreseeable future. 

Denver (-5) over OAKLAND

JC: Denver's defense against Oakland's offense seems like a mis-match. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper have been impressive so far, but if they can't cut it against Chicago, then they definitely can't cut it against the best defense in football.

JP: Yeah, I'm still high on the Raiders, though they're going to struggle with consistency playing so many young guys on offense. They're definitely fun to watch, but you get a feeling they aren't quite ready for Denver's pressure, and I wouldn't expect Peyton Manning to put his defense in bad situations either.

Dear God, is Peyton Manning suddenly a game manager that makes a few big plays for a defensive team? Did he and Ben Roethlisberger Freaky Friday each other?

NEW YORK GIANTS (-7) over San Francisco

JC: San Francisco has the worst average scoring margin in the league (not surprising, considering they lost 43-18 to Pittsburgh and 47-7 against Arizona, while New York is a surprising 10th in the league at +5.0. It would be just about the most Giants thing ever to somehow blow this game, but after two semi-impressive wins in the last two weeks, I'll buy what New York is selling.

JP: SF: Bad. NYG: Maybe good.

Here Are The Picks We Disagree On (Home Teams Still In CAPS)

JC: Indianapolis (+5) over HOUSTON

The Colts were 3.5-point favorites at home against Jacksonville last week. Even if you buy the theory that home-field advantage is worth exactly three points in the NFL (for the most part, I disagree - I'd peg it closer to two points), what we can infer is that Vegas thought Houston is two and a half points better than Jacksonville. I didn't buy it. I sniffed this one out pretty quick.

JP: HOUSTON (-5) over Indianapolis

Come on! Even if Luck was playing, the Texans were at home with the better defense and better running game. You take Luck out and insert a 40-year old Matt Hasselbeck playing with the goddamn flu, and Houston should have run away with this thing. Stupid Texans. 

JC: Cleveland (+6.5) over BALTIMORE

Okay, so Baltimore picked up a win over a Ben-less Pittsburgh, but they easily could have lost it. Now they're giving a touchdown? I'm not buying it. You can choose to ignore it if you want, but Josh McCown has been slinging the ball all over the field the last two weeks (341 yards against Oakland, 356 against San Diego), so don't be surprised if he does the same against a starting-to-be-not-so-secretly-bad Baltimore defense.

JP: BALTIMORE (-6.5) over Cleveland

I know the Ravens aren't what they used to be defensively, but this team was still a play away from beating Denver and a play away from beating Cincinnati.

Oh, and speaking of bad defenses, the Browns are the worst in football, so there's that.

Also, Baltimore hasn't covered once this year, so the math's gotta set it, right? (As I push all my money onto red after three spins came up black and one green)

JC: ATLANTA (-7.5) over Washington

The Falcons just score a buttload of points, thanks in large part to Julio Jones (he's been the best wide receiver in football so far this year) and Devonta Freeman (they finally have a running back that actually fits into their offense). I'm still not quite sure what to make of Washington, but for now I'm trusting Atlanta.

JP: Washington (+7.5) over ATLANTA

I'm probably going down with the ship on this one, but I still don't quite trust the Falcons. I think if we look back on past years, we'll find that one of our downfalls has come in the early-middle portion of the season where we either 1. Put too much faith in a team we loved in the preseason that turned out to suck, or 2. Failed to buy in on a team we previously thought was awful, but was actually good.

I could be making mistake number two, but I don't like giving more than a touchdown unless you're a juggernaut, especially against a team that is surprisingly at .500 and in the thick of a division race.

Also, do we ever mention the fact that Washington has a Top-5 defense? It's true, in fact Washington currently boasts the 2nd best run defense in the league, allowing just 78 yards per game, and they run the ball better than anybody (I know, right?), rushing for 140 yards per game.

JC: CINCINNATI (-3) over Seattle

Yes, Seattle's defense has looked a lot better since Chancellor's return, but those games were against Chicago and Detroit. I'm not sure I'm ready to pencil them into the NFC Championship again quite yet. With Marshawn Lynch still questionable, it's enough to push the needle towards the Bengals.

JP: Seattle (+3) over CINCINNATI

If you're giving me the defending champs, with points, just as they're rounding into form against a team that always starts fast, but we know isn't actually THAT good, I'll take em every time.

JC: SAN DIEGO (-3.5) over Pittsburgh

San Diego is another team that I'm still not quite sure about. Two close wins, one close loss to a really good team (Cincinnati) and one not-so-close-loss-but-it-was-way-closer-than-it-seemed to another enigma team (Minnesota). I'm willing to entertain the idea that the Chargers are much better than we think they are, but I'm not sure I'm willing to entertain that they're much worse than we think they are (but only because I don't know anyone who thinks they're that great to begin with). With Pittsburgh's offense still a bit weird, I'll see what the Chargers can do for me.

JP: Pittsburgh (+3.5) over SAN DIEGO

There are a lot of reasons to like San Diego here. You mentioned a few, plus it will be past Pittsburgh's bed time by the second half, and the injury to Ben Roethlisberger is obviously a huge blow to the Steelers offense. Still, Pittsburgh's defense has quietly taken steps the last few weeks.

The Steelers currently rank in the top-half of the league in total D at 12th (something they would have killed for last year), and they've suddenly re-discovered their pass rush, wracking up 14 sacks the first four games, good for 4th best in football behind only Denver, Green Bay and St. Louis, and ahead of teams like New England and Cincinnati. What's crazy about that is where the pass rush is coming from. For years under Dick LeBeau, the Steelers terrorized offenses with linebackers coming off the edge in his zone blitz scheme. But over half of Pittsburgh's sacks have come when the Steelers rush four or less, with young defensive end Stephon Tuitt (in his first fully healthy season) leading the way with 3.5.

As a point of reference, Pittsburgh has ranked 26th in the league in sacks the last two seasons, and haven't hard more than 40 sacks since reaching the Super Bowl in 2010, when they led the league with 48. The Steelers are currently on pace for 56.

(As a side note, the Broncos are currently on pace to tie the 1984 Bears for most sacks in a season with 72)

While I don't know if Pittsburgh takes this thing outright, it has the feel of a close one to me, so I'll grab the points.

 Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 9-5-1
Season: 37-22-2
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-2
Season's Disagreements: 11-7

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 9-5-1
Season: 33-28-2
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-2
Season's Disagreements: 7-11

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