Saturday, September 29, 2018

NFL Week 4 Primer (With Picks): The Long Journey To The Middle

Screw it. The Browns won a game & covered the spread last week. They get the cover photo. It's been a weird season so far.

 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

[Let's get this out of the way first: Jeremy turned off the Patriots-Lions game shortly after Brady's interception, and he's still not quite in the mood to talk about it.]

Week 4 is upon us, and with it, comes the continued regression to the mean. Yes, there are still a few strange outliers; the Dolphins, Titans, and Bears currently make up three-eighths of the league's division leaders.  The Patriots are in last place in the AFC East. Ryan Fitzpatrick leads the league in passing yards. Matt Breida is tied for the league lead in rushing yards. Things are still weird. But going forward, things will start to seem a lot less weird.

Maybe the Dolphins, Titans, and Bears are actually good. Maybe not division-winning good, but fight-for-a-playoff spot good. Maybe Ryan Fitzpatrick is the next inexplicable veteran quarterback breakout star, in the vein of Case Keenum last year. Maybe Matt Breida is the next unexpected star at running back, similar to how a then-unknown Jay Ajayi went bonkers two years ago.

On the other hand, maybe the regression gnomes will take over and all of these teams and players will crash back down to Earth over the next month. Maybe these early struggles for New England aren't any more of a to-do than their opening night loss to Kansas City last year or their early season losses to Miami and Kansas City back in 2014 (when they won the Super Bowl).

Every week, the picture becomes clearer. Take the Bills, for instance. They got absolutely trounced in Week 1, but how much of that was because, again, Nathan Peterman might be the single worst quarterback ever to appear in an NFL game? (He's thrown 7 interceptions in 67 career attempts, his 10.45% Interception Rate is the 8th-worst since the merger among players with at least 50 passing attempts.) Since they benched Peterman, they're actually, you know, a football team. They looked bad against the Chargers in the first half but actually looked competitive in the second half. (And the Chargers might actually be good considering their losses are to Kansas City and the Rams.) Last week, obviously, they beat up on Minnesota, which maybe shouldn't be considered as ridiculous as it appeared at the time.

Long story short, we now have a three-week sample size to work with. Who are the candidates for regression? Who do we think is the real deal? We're approaching the point where you have to start letting go of your pre-season assumptions and go with what we're actually seeing on the field. We're not quite there yet, but we can see it on the horizon. Keep those pre-season thoughts in the back of your mind, but if you hold on to them too long, you can get burned.

Week 3 was pretty ugly - we agreed on 12 picks and went 4-8. Where we differed, we split, 2-2. That 6-10 mark leaves both of us well short of .500 for the season, so once again, we're coming into the week looking to make up some ground.

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

LOS ANGELES RAMS (-7) over Minnesota

Well, we got the week started off with a push, somehow an improvement on last week's record. Minnesota's defense just looks lost out there, which is definitely something to keep in mind. They just aren't the same team they were last year.

INDIANAPOLIS (-1) over Houston

JC: I'm not totally sure why, but I kind of like the Colts right now. Their defense seems okay, they keep games close, and even though their offense has been pretty underwhelming (averaging under 300 yards per game), they still have Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton and a decent collection of secondary receivers. They've played a tough schedule thus far; Houston at home will definitely be their softest matchup to this point in the season. Houston can certainly move the ball (8th in total yards in the league), but haven't been converting in the Red Zone (4 for 11, 28th in the league). If this is a game of field goals, I think that favors the team with Andrew Luck at quarterback.

JP: I still don't think Andrew Luck is quite right, but I'm starting to believe the Colts can be adecent, while I'm quickly losing faith in Houston.

Buffalo (+9.5) over GREEN BAY

JC: Didn't we all just get burned on Buffalo getting too many points last week? I get that this line is a full touchdown lower, but it's not like Buffalo was getting 16 points and kept the game close enough to cover, they were getting 16 points and won the game outright. And they won VERY convincingly. And for as much as I love Aaron Rodgers, he and his Packers haven't looked great on the season so far. Rodgers himself is still banged up, the running game is lackluster, and the defense is pretty medium. They're relying on Rodgers' brilliance, and while he certainly can bring it, and very well might, I'm just not laying close to 10 points here.

JP: Well, the Packers tied the Vikings and the Bills annihilated them, so why is the former giving almost 10 points?

New York Jets (+7.5) over JACKSONVILLE

JC: So, which Jacksonville team are you buying? The team that impressively blew out the Patriots, or the team that barely put away the Giants and lost to the Titans and only managed 232 yards of offense? I'm just not that impressed with Jacksonville's offense. New York's defense, meanwhile, has been above-average for sure, and they can run the ball reasonably well. Getting more than a touchdown seems like good value here.

JP: I buy the Jags as a solid bet to win this game outright, but I don't trust their offense enough to give more than a touchdown.

Tampa Bay (+3) over CHICAGO

JC: Chicago has a really good defense on paper, but keep in mind that their last two games are against Seattle and Arizona (who have been train wrecks offensively), and Week 1 was against DeShone Kizer for most of the first half and a hobbled Aaron Rodgers for the second half. On the other hand, Tampa Bay's offense has been the best in the league, but they've played against sub-part defenses (and that's being pretty generous to New Orleans and Pittsburgh). Considering Tampa Bay was still able to put up big numbers against Philadelphia, I'll buy them here doing it against Chicago.


Seattle (-3) over ARIZONA

JC: The Cardinals remain dead last in total yards and in points. Josh Rosen will take over at quarterback this week, but I remain unconvinced that it will make much of a difference. Seattle's defense isn't what it once was, but they've manhandled Chicago and Dallas in the last two weeks, so I don't think Arizona will be too much trouble for them.

JP: Both these teams stink, so don't you have to roll with the better coach and quarterback?

Cleveland (+2.5) over OAKLAND

JC: Did you see the game last week? Cleveland won! And Baker Mayfield looked like an exciting player! Things are going well for the Browns! They have a solid defense! I'm fired up! Are you fired up? You should be!

JP: That, and Oakland is finding creative ways to fail. Are the Raiders the new Browns?

New Orleans (-3) over NEW YORK GIANTS

JC: The Saints are good, the Giants are bad. Grass is green, water is wet, I don't really need to tell you other things that you already know. New Orleans does have a really bad defense, so if the Giants are going to find some rhythm offensively, it should happen here, but I don't think they'll be able to keep pace with Drew Brees and the Saints' offense.

JP: New Orleans wins a shootout by at least a touchdown, right?

Kansas City (-4.5) over DENVER

JC: Denver is just good enough to not embarrass themselves against most of the league, but not quite good enough to not be embarrassed by this Chiefs team. The dirty secret about Kansas City is that they're currently dead last in total defense, actually surrendering more yards on defense than they've accrued themselves on offense. Some of that is because they've been up by double-digits in every fourth quarter this season and have started playing pretty loose defense, but they haven't really been able to get stops (and have let teams back in the game in the process). Still, this seems like a reasonable spread for this game.

JP: The Chiefs' defense ain't great, but much of that stat is because everybody else is playing catch up against them each week. Plus, do we really think Denver's offense is good enough to exploit them for the 30+ they're gonna need to keep this close? Nah.

Here Are the Picks We Disagree On (Home Team Still in CAPS)

JC: Miami (+6.5) over NEW ENGLAND

If you've been watching New England so far this season, you'd probably agree with me when I say they really don't deserve to be favored by this much over anyone right now, let alone a 3-0 team. The offense is bad, the defense is bad, and that's really about it right now. I'm just not willing to back this New England team until I see what the offense looks like with Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman in the lineup. Does that mean I'm betting against them until Week 6? That will depend on the lines. But this line is way, way too high.

JP: NEW ENGLAND (-6.5) over Miami

Come on. Belichick and Brady, with their back's against the wall, in a must-win game, aren't gonna blow out the Dolphins? I know the Pats have issues, but ain't no way they're dropping to 1-3 and sending the Dolphins to 4-0. AIN'T NO WAY! (I'm only half-trying to reverse-jinx this)

JC: Cincinnati (+4) over ATLANTA

So, Atlanta's offense has certainly woken up over the last two weeks. 68 points and 849 yards over two games is about as good as or better than a half-dozen teams over their first three weeks. The bad news is that their defense is in shambles after a solid Week 1 performance in Philadelphia. Cincinnati's explosive offense that existed in 2015 (the year they started 8-0 before Andy Dalton got hurt and they stumbled down the stretch and in the playoffs) seems to be back - they've had three big offensive days so far this season (although Dalton's four interceptions last week certainly submarined an otherwise productive day). This will probably be a high-scoring matchup, and Cincinnati getting the points is just enough to sell me.

JP: ATLANTA (-4) over Cincinnati

Nah man, the Bengals are frauds, and Atlanta is just getting going. Throw in the Dirty Birds at home, and this looks like a potential 10+ point win to me.

JC: DALLAS (-3) over Detroit

The Dallas offense is bad, and if they fall behind early, almost hopeless. But their defense is really, really good. If their defense is able to keep a game even remotely close, their sole bright spot on offense has been their ability to grind out yards on the ground. This seems to line up well against Detroit - they currently have the No. 1 pass defense in the league, but are surrendering almost five and a half yards per carry on the ground. Dallas should be able to run the ball whenever they want, eat up clock, keep the game low-scoring, and let their defense take over.

JP: Detroit (+3) over DALLAS

Am I buying in too early on Detroit after the Lions' whooping of New England? Maybe. But, it isn't like Dallas has inspired much confidence this year, and at least Detroit has a discernable strength (as Jeremy said, rushing the passer). Sure, gimme the points and the Lions.

JC: TENNESSEE (+3.5) over Philadelphia

I'm going to float an idea that I will come to regret by halftime of this game: Are we sure that Philadelphia is that good? Like, I'm not convinced that any of their opponents to this point in the season are good teams. The Falcons and Colts both have losing records and negative scoring margins, and they lost to Tampa Bay, who, all things considered, seem like a pretty medium team. Don't get me wrong - the Titans aren't good either. But they did just go into Jacksonville and beat the Jaguars, so how bad are they really? Now they're getting an extra half-point, at home? Isn't that value?

JP: Philadelphia (-3.5) over TENNESSEE

Yeah, I agree that the extra half-point seems like good value, and it's making me nervous, but I'm trusting the defending Super Bowl champs, with Carson Wentz back in the lineup, over a team that beat the sleepwalking Jaguars last week.

JC: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (-10.5) over San Francisco

Remember when the 49ers started 1-10 last year with Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard at quarterback? This game is going to look a lot like that. The Chargers have a really impressive offense - they can put up points with anyone, and San Francisco's defense hasn't done much to write home about. This spread seems like a lot of points to lay on a team with a losing record, but I actually think the Chargers are good (their two losses are to undefeated teams).

JP: San Francisco (+10.5) over LOS ANGELES CHARGERS 

The Niners are in a bad way injury-wise, not just at QB, but on defense as well. And, I agree that the Chargers are pretty good. That said... Over 10 points is too much against a team that can actually run the ball, and I don't think the Chargers are a powerhouse either.

JC: PITTSBURGH (-3) over Baltimore

Speaking of terrible defenses, your very own Pittsburgh Steelers! I mean, they got torched by the Chiefs and Buccaneers, so maybe they aren't quite as bad as they seem to this point. The Ravens resume looks real good on paper: Top 5 in scoring offense and scoring defense, No. 1 in total yards allowed, No. 1 in yards per pass attempt allowed. But as mentioned above, their Week 1 win against Buffalo might not be relevant data. They've looked good (but not great since), and there are some warning signs. Namely, they're 26th in rushing yards and 31st in rushing average, and some folks might not know this, but they still start Joe Flacco at quarterback every week. Give me the Steelers at home.

JP: Baltimore (+3) over PITTSBURGH

The Steelers have played one good half of football all year, and the defense has been atrocious. Gimme the points.

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 6-10
Season: 17-29-2
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-2
Season's Disagreements: 5-8-1

Joe's Record: 
Last Week: 6-10
Season: 20-26-2
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-2
Season's Disagreements: 8-5-1

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