Saturday, October 13, 2018

NFL Week 6 Primer (With Picks): The Best Offense Is A Good Offense

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

Scoring is at an all-time high in the NFL right now.

26 of the 32 teams in the league are averaging north of 20 points per game. The Bengals are averaging over 30 points per game through five weeks, a number that doesn't even land them on the podium. They currently stand fourth behind the Saints (36.0 per game), Chiefs (35.0 per game), and Rams (34.6 per game). The Saints have the 28th-ranked scoring defense yet somehow have the league's fifth-best scoring margin. We've reached a point in the league, with all the modifications to how the officials call illegal contact, pass interference, and roughing the passer, where having a great defense doesn't really matter anymore. Simply out-racing your opponent to 40 points is a perfectly legitimate way to win football games in 2018.

Last week, the Chiefs and Jaguars faced off, the league's No.1 scoring offense (entering the week) versus the league's No. 1 scoring defense (ditto). If this game were happening in the 1970s, everyone would assume Jacksonville would steamroll Kansas City (the whole "defense beats offense" thing). That's not how football works anymore, though. The pendulum has swung clearly in the direction of offenses. Kansas City won easily.

If you look at the top three scoring offenses (New Orleans, Kansas City, and Los Angeles) versus the top three scoring defenses (Baltimore, Jacksonville, Tennessee), or the top three DVOA offenses (same three as above) versus the top three DVOA defenses (Chicago, Cleveland, and Baltimore), and had to pick one group to back going forward, I have to think that anyone with an IQ over 90 would take the top offenses.

That's not to say that defense is irrelevant. Teams like Jacksonville, Tennessee, Chicago, and Baltimore are showing that you can still win football games with a solid defense and unspectacular offense. It can be done. But if you gave me a choice between an elite defense and mediocre offense or an elite offense and mediocre defense, I'm picking the great offense 10 times out of 10.

Week 5 saw a slight improvement on Jeremy's part. He went 7-8 against the spread, somehow both (a) his best week of the season to this point, but also (b) moving him further away from .500 for the season. It's really not going well. Joe went 5-10 on the week, with Jeremy winning disagreements 4-2. This week, at least one of us is putting up a winning record. I promise.

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

Philadelphia (-1.5) over NEW YORK GIANTS

We're starting things off right. The line sunk all the way down to Eagles -1.5 by kickoff (it opened at -3.5), which made it certainly easy enough to take Philadelphia. The Giants are really, really bad. I'm not sure if they're the worst team in the league (the Cardinals and Bills do still exist), but they're bad. The Eagles aren't much better, but they certainly looked good Thursday night.

CINCINNATI (-2) over Pittsburgh

JC: I really like this Bengals team. They've pulled off two miracle covers on late defensive touchdowns, but those were both games that they were likely to win regardless. (Not cover, but win.) Pittsburgh's defense looked better last week against a still pretty good Atlanta offense, but they still have some pretty clear holes. I think Cincinnati is objectively better than Pittsburgh right now anyway, so this line seems suspiciously low.

JP: Yeah, this line should be at least 3, but probably more like 3.5. Bengals are a good value pick at home.

Los Angeles Chargers (Pick'em) over CLEVELAND

JC: The Chargers are tough to get a read on. They have three reasonably convincing wins, but those wins are against the Bills, 49ers, and Raiders (by any measure three teams in the bottom quarter of the league). They have two losses, but they were both competitive games against the league's two undefeated teams. They haven't really played a regular, average team yet. Cleveland, to me, seems to be the epitome of average. They currently have one win in overtime, one loss in overtime, one win in regulation, one loss in regulation, one tie, and a net scoring margin of +1 (not per game, for the season - they've scored 114 and allowed 113). That's average. I'm taking the Chargers because I still lean towards the idea of them being kinda good, and I think they're a really good road team.

JP: I'm really tempted to bet on some Baker Magic™ this week, but yeah, the Chargers are the better team. Still, I have a feeling that Cleveland is going to be a pretty tough place to win for non-elite teams the rest of the way.

Buffalo (+10) over HOUSTON

JC: Let's get this out of the way - the Bills have maybe the worst offense I've ever seen. It's so incredibly bad. Their passing DVOA currently sits at -72.9%, a full 48% worse than the next-worst team, Arizona. The gap between Buffalo and Arizona is similar to the gap between Arizona and New England. Buffalo is THAT bad. They're one of the five worst offenses that Football Outsiders has data for. Like, ever. Their data goes back to 1986. That's 32 years. That's close to 1000 seasons of football, and the Bills are one of the five worst teams ever. On the other hand, the Bills are allowing just 5.2 yards per play on defense (fourth best in the league), they allow just 27.8 yards per drive (sixth best in the league), and they've forced 10 fumbles (best in the league). On paper, their offense can only improve, and their defense should be good enough to keep them in close games. They've been blown out by the Ravens and Packers (two legitimately good teams) and have managed to win two games. By my measure, Houston is pretty mediocre. Their offense looks good on paper (3rd in total yards, 10th in yards per play), but they're just 15th in scoring offense because they're so horrificly bad in the Red Zone (converting just 36 percent of their Red Zone drives into touchdowns, 31st in the league). If Houston is scoring field goals and not touchdowns, then a 10-point spread is way, way too big.

JP: That's a long way of saying, "Buffalo is really bad, but Houston isn't quite good enough to justify this spread." I agree.

Seattle (-2.5) over Oakland (LONDON)

JC: The Seahawks won two straight games and then played a close game against the Rams (at worst, the league's second-best team). They seem to be turning it around. They've found some success on the ground, churning 474 yards on 105 carries (4.5 yards per) over the last three weeks. Oakland currently sits 27th against the run per rush, and really only have a win because the Browns turned the ball over four times in their game Week 4. They just aren't a very good team to begin with, and their injury list is as long as my arm (and I'm 6-6). On a neutral field, giving less than a field goal, Seattle seems safe here.

JP: The Gruden dumpster fire continues.

Chicago (-3.5) over MIAMI

JC: Ugh, I really don't want to trust a young team to cover the extra half-point on the road, but then I remember that (a) Miami isn't that great of a home team anyway, (b) Miami has one of the worst offenses in the league, (c) Chicago has one of the best defenses in the league, and (d) I'm not buying Miami as a good defense because they're propped up by 10 interceptions in five games (which has almost zero chance of sustaining much longer). All that being said, there's a 100 percent chance that Chicago wins this game by a score of like, 15-12 and I feel dumb all Sunday night.

JP: I get not trusting a young team, but Chicago has been lights out on defense, and occasionally brilliant on offense, while Miami has been horrible in all phases the past two weeks.

ATLANTA (-3) over Tampa Bay

JC: Atlanta is semi-inexplicably 1-4. Sure, there are obvious reasons why (their defense stinks like a skunk that got sprayed by another skunk that had been eating other skunks), but they lost by whiskers at home to New Orleans and Cincinnati (both teams sit at 4-1) and their offense still has some real explosion. The Bucs are going back to Jameis Winston at quarterback, who looked medium at best in relief two weeks ago (throwing two interceptions in 20 attempts). This should be a shootout, with both teams having fantastic offenses and above-described terrible defenses. Normally I'd want the points, but here I want Matt Ryan.

JP: Yep, I trust Atlanta's quarterback more, but I must stress that I really like Tampa Bay's skill guys. Still, Atlanta's playing at home with only a field goal spread against a mediocre divisional opponent... These are the kinds of games the Falcons cover in.

MINNESOTA (-10) over Arizona

JC: I'm cashing in now with the line at 10. I think I'd probably take Arizona at any price higher than that - I just don't like Minnesota's defense and I don't trust them to avoid a late backdoor cover. Sure, Arizona is really bad, but so are the Bills and Minnesota couldn't figure them out. It helps to know that Arizona's season high in yards so far this year is 263 - half the league averages that much every week without even running the ball. I think 10 points is safe here.

JP: I'm gonna be a total hypocrite later and say that 10 points is too rich for a mediocre NFC North team going against a bad NFC West team, but whatever: I like the Vikes, and I think Kirk Cousins goes off in a blowout.

Carolina (+1) over WASHINGTON

JC: So, the Redskins have looked like one of the best teams in the league in Week 1 against Arizona (really bad team) and in Week 3 against the Packers (above-average team), and then looked like one of the worst teams in the league in Week 2 against the Colts (below-average team) and Week 5 against New Orleans (really good team). I really can't make heads or tails of this team. I really like this Carolina team, though, and I'm willing to lean that way while buying the idea of the Redskins as maybe not that good.

JP: I'm actually not in love with this Carolina team, but I have no idea what to make of Washington, and the spread is negligible.

Los Angeles Rams (-7) over DENVER

JC: The Rams couldn't cover a touchdown spread on the road last week against a team that played in the 2014 Super Bowl, so I can see wanting to go the other way this week. Seattle is probably just plain better than Denver, though (Denver's Week 1 win over the Seahawks notwithstanding), and Denver's defense just isn't holding up for some reason (26th in yards allowed, 26th in yards per play). Also, Case Keenum just isn't the same player he was last year - he hasn't had a good game yet this year. The ground game is working (leading the league in yards per rush) but that's about it.

JP: Last week was the first time LA faced any real adversity this season, and they were able to hold on for the win. I think they get back on track and house a Denver team that doesn't really do anything well at this point.

Jacksonville (-3) over DALLAS

JC: Is Dallas bad? They finished strong last year (7-4 in their last 11 games), but haven't looked good this year at all. Their pass offense is anemic, and it seems like any snap that doesn't feature Ezekiel Elliot touching the ball almost seems like a waste. Jacksonville still has a great defense, and actually held up reasonably well last week against the Chiefs. They only allowed 23 points on defense (one of Kansas City's scores was an interception return) and kept the Chiefs to just 4-for-12 on third down. This Jacksonville defense against this Dallas offense seems like a mis-match.

JP: If the Blake Bortles from Week 2 would like to show up, I'm sure the Jags would be happy to have them. I really think he can be the caretaker QB for a really good team, but he's got to get more consistent.

Baltimore (-2.5) over TENNESSEE

JC: This just looks like a good old-fashioned rock fight. We've got the league's No. 1 scoring defense (Baltimore) and the league's No. 3 scoring defense (Tennessee) and neither offense seems all that great. I'm not sure how good Tennessee's defense actually is, taking advantage of a few mediocre-to-bad offenses (Buffalo, Miami, Jacksonville, even Philadelphia), whereas Baltimore actually held Pittsburgh to just 14 points and 284 yards. If we accept the premise that Baltimore's offense is slightly better and that Tennessee's defense is slightly overrated, covering less than a three-point spread shouldn't be too hard.

JP: Despite their struggles last week, I still like both of these teams, but Baltimore has the better defense and (ugh) quarterback.

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

JC: Indianapolis (+2.5) over NEW YORK JETS

I don't like this line and neither should you. The Jets are giving at least a point, maybe even two more than they deserve to be giving based on last week specifically - the Jets looked great, the Colts looked bad - but the Colts are vaguely healthier after some extra time off following their Thursday night game. Anthony Castonzo and Marlon Mack (both offensive starters) are back in the lineup after multiple weeks out, and a handful of rotation defensive players should be back in the lineup (too many to name here). None of those guys are actually that good (Castonzo is fine, I guess), but they won't be trotting out random practice squad stiffs and other riff-raff. Don't overpay for last week's performance.

JP: NEW YORK JETS (-2.5) over Indianapolis

God help me, I'm taking the Jets and giving points.

KC: Kansas City (+3.5) over NEW ENGLAND

It's the half-point. The Patriots have looked like, well, the Patriots again for the last two weeks, but I still have my guard up. The defense still has issues (probably a problem against the Chiefs), they've committed nine turnovers in five games (very unusual for the Patriots), and Tom Brady still looks less than crisp. More than that, the Chiefs spanked the Patriots Week 1 last year, played them close in the 2016 playoffs, and spanked them again in 2014. The Chiefs under Andy Reid have had success against the Patriots, and that half-point is scaring me just enough.

JP: NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) over Kansas City

An undefeated team that has looked unstoppable rolls into Foxboro to take on a Patriots team that is just getting everybody back and hitting its stride... Yeah, Belichick and Co. have a plan, and they'll once again cement themselves as the top team in the AFC by Monday morning.

JC: GREEN BAY (-9.5) over San Francisco

Just so we're clear, the 49ers played against a winless team, held their quarterback to 10-for-25 passing, held their ground game to 2.4 yards per rush, possessed the ball for 40 minutes of a 60-minute game, literally gained twice as many yards as their opponent, and lost by 10. This is the 49ers team we're talking about. They're bad. Really, really bad. Now they're going up against Green Bay, a team whose one bright spot has been their pass defense (second-best in yards against, third-best in yards per pass), which means I can't imagine San Francisco will be able to score enough to keep pace. The Packers have had a disappointing season to this point, but this seems like the kind of game that could get them back on track.

JP: San Francisco (+9.5) over GREEN BAY

I may die on this hill, but this spread is too damn high! Aaron Rodgers is hurt, and the Packers don't have a whole lot else going on. The Niners' offense is awful, but I just can't give 10 points to the Packers yet.

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 7-8
Season: 27-47-4
Last Week's Disagreements: 4-2
Season's Disagreements: 11-14-1

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 5-10
Season: 30-44-4
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-4
Season's Disagreements: 14-11-1

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