Friday, October 26, 2018

NFL Week 8 Primer (With Picks): Where Are The Good Teams?

Adam Thielen is undeniably good, but are the Vikings? Is anybody in the league really good outside the Top-3 or 4? Uh, we're not sure.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

How many teams in the league do you implicitly trust right now?

By our count, there's four, and only four.

The Rams, the Saints, the Chiefs, and the Patriots. That's it.

The Chargers have a decent record, but have played one of the league's easiest schedules (25th in the league according to Football Outsiders). Baltimore has the league's third-best scoring margin, but have squandered three winnable games. There's a cluster of teams in the NFC with only two losses (Minnesota, Washington, Carolina, and Green Bay), but their scoring margins still hover barely above zero and have struggled to put away bad teams (Carolina barely beat the Giants, Minnesota lost to Buffalo, the Packers let the 49ers hang around, Washington lost to the Colts).

Two of the AFC's strongest teams last year - Pittsburgh and Jacksonville - can't seem to get out of their own way and each have a unit (Pittsburgh's defense and Jacksonville's offense) that just isn't up to par for what a contending team needs.

It's only Week 8. There are usually more than just four teams that you can hang your hat on. Seven teams won 11 games or more last year. Same for 2016 and 2015. There were nine of them in both 2014 and 2013. Who are they this year? Do we think the Ravens can finish 7-2 with teams like Carolina, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Los Angeles remaining on their schedule? What about Minnesota, who still has to play New Orleans, Green Bay, New England, and Chicago twice? Pittsburgh still has to play Baltimore, Carolina, the Chargers, New England, and New Orleans. Do we want to start taking Houston seriously, now that they've won five straight and shellacked Miami on Thursday night? Or do we still not buy it after they lost to the Giants and only beat Indianapolis and Buffalo by a combined 10 points?

As we stand now, it seems like maybe we should only trust those top four teams and just lean towards the underdogs when these second-tier teams match up against each other. Underdogs are seven games over .500 on the season based on data from, so maybe the idea has some legs.

We continued our trek back to .500 last week. We agreed on nine picks and went 6-3 (losing to a heartbreaking backdoor cover on Monday night). Joe took the split picks by a 3-2 record, but the moral of the story is that we both finished over .500 and are on pace to get back to even by the season's end. We hope.

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

Miami (+7.5) over HOUSTON

We both got suckered into the half-point for the Dolphins and got spanked for it. As mentioned above, Houston might be good. It's something worse considering. They now have two very impressive wins in the span of five days, five consecutive victories overall, and a reasonably cushy schedule going forward. If you're looking for a vaguely under-the-radar team to ride going forward, this might be it.

Philadelphia (-3) over JACKSONVILLE

JC: The Jaguars defense is still playing well, but 17 turnovers in 7 games is just losing football. When you turn the ball over that often and also suck in the Red Zone (29th in the league entering the week), you just won't score enough to be competitive, regardless of how good your defense is. I've been underwhelmed by Philadelphia so far this season, but the defense is still playing well and Carson Wentz is starting to look like Carson Wentz again (71 percent completions, average of 300+ yards, and a QB Rating of 113 over the last four weeks).

JP: Bad Blake is back.

Cleveland (+8) over PITTSBURGH

JC: The Browns continue to be frisky and they would have covered an 8-point spread in six of their seven games so far this season. Pittsburgh would have covered an 8-point spread in exactly one of their games so far (the blowout win over Atlanta). Cleveland continues to force turnovers at a prodigious rate (20 in seven games), and forced six against the Steelers Week 1. Six is obviously an outlier, but Cleveland has been keeping games close one way or another.

JP: Myles Garrett has grown into one of the best defenders in all of football, and this feels like a game where he introduces himself to the casual fan. I don't know if Cleveland pulls off the upset, but the Browns will make things stressful for the Heinz Field crowd.

KANSAS CITY (-9.5) over Denver

JC: The Broncos kept the first matchup reasonably close, but that was in Denver, and Kansas City has actually looked better since then. Denver put up 45 points last Thursday, but their offense only accounted for 300 yards and two of the scores came on defense. Like, they put up 45 points while also punting on six of their 12 meaningful drives. I'm not buying them being able to keep up with the Chiefs in Kansas City.

JP: What is there to like about Denver? Seriously, is there anything? I'm legitimately curious.

CHICAGO (-7.5) over New York Jets

JC: I feel like a hypocrite after saying that you should be riding underdogs (especially when a team like Chicago is giving more than a touchdown), but this Chicago team came way closer to beating the Patriots last week than we're really talking about right now. If New England didn't come up with two special teams touchdowns, I'm not sure they win that game. Chicago might be that team with a deceptively poor record that rattles off six straight wins to vault themselves to the top of the conference.

JP: Agreed, Chicago is actually good. The Bears have a great defense, and some legit weapons on offense. When Mitch is not giving the game away, they can play with anybody, but he's a young QB so you have to believe he'll get it figured out and have them in the Super Bowl soon.

Dear God, I just described Jacksonville last year. Things can come apart quick, but I like Khalil Mack and Co. this week.

Washington (Pick'em) over NEW YORK GIANTS

JC: The Giants pulled a backdoor cover from the deepest recesses of their sphincter last week. As bad as they are, their only blowout losses are to the Eagles and Saints and every other game has been close, so I guess I understand being a Pick'em at home against a team that's been pretty hot and cold. If the Giants were getting any points at all I might be tempted to take them but I'm not ready to pick them to win outright against anyone right now.

JP: How is this a pick'em?

Baltimore (+2.5) over CAROLINA

JC: Baltimore is always one of the teams that I irrationally dislike more than I should, and Carolina is always one of the teams that I irrationally like more than I should. Baltimore's season to this point has either been blowout wins or close losses, so getting points on the road against a Carolina team that still hasn't impressed me all that much and secretly might not even be that good seems like a good deal.

JP: Two good defenses and not a whole lot else to like, so I'll take the points.

LOS ANGELES RAMS (-9.5) over Green Bay

JC: The Rams are just so much better than everyone else right now. The Packers just had their bye week and might finally be healthy for the first time all year, but there's something that still feels off about them. They've been uncommonly poor on third down and in the red zone (normally a strength with Aaron Rodgers in the lineup) and their scoring margin doesn't inspire confidence (they blew out Buffalo but every other game has either been a loss or a win by the literal skin of their teeth). I don't think that bodes well against a buzzsaw team like the Rams.

JP: Ram blowouts are back!

New England (-14) over BUFFALO

JC: Tom Brady is 28-2 in meaningful starts against the Bills in his career (he also lost a meaningless Week 17 start in 2014 where he only played the first half). The margin of victory of those games since 2007 are 20, 21, 16, 8, 7, 15, 2, 14, 24, 6, -3, 28, 8, 31, 1, 7, 31, and 46. That's an average of 15.7 points per game. If the Patriots play an "average" game, they would expect to cover this spread with a reasonable amount of comfort. Considering the Patriots are the hottest team in the league not named after a hoofed mammal and the Bills continue to be the worst offense in the history of Football Outsiders data, a two-touchdown spread on the road doesn't seem ridiculous at all.

JP: Patriots blowouts are back!

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

JC: Seattle (+3) over DETROIT

I continue to suck picking Detroit games (I'm 0-6), so my first instinct is to go against my gut and take them as a small favorite at home against an unspectacular opponent. Then again, it's the Seahawks coming off a bye week and a convincing win against Oakland the week before and they seem to be figuring things out on offense and they're starting to get healthy again. And, on some level, wouldn't it be fun to miss every Detroit game for a full season? What if I just lean into it?

JP: DETROIT (-3) over Seattle

Oh, it's a Lions game? Who did Jeremy pick? I'll have the opposite.

JC: CINCINNATI (-4) over Tampa Bay

This seems like a good spot for Cincinnati to get back on track after two tough losses in the conference. The Bengals have played the second-hardest schedule in the league to this point (according to Football Outsiders) but have come out with a 4-3 record, and, other than getting blown out by the Chiefs (join the club), they've been a pretty good team. With Tampa Bay's shoddy defense in town, they should be able to move the ball easily and find their rhythm again.

JP: Tampa Bay (+4) over CINCINNATI

I'll grant you that Tampa Bay is dead last in scoring defense, allowing nearly 33 PPG, but only Kansas City allows more yards per game than Cincinnati's defense (429.4 YPG). My initial thought will be that this game comes down to who gets the ball last, and who doesn't turn it over. That made me think I should take the Bengals, but then I realized, aw hell, Jameis Winston has to play well one of these weeks, right?

JC: OAKLAND (+3) over Indianapolis

Well, this is a yuck-fest. The Raiders are at home, getting points, and coming off a bye. I'm not sure where the respect for the Colts is coming from. They beat up on Buffalo, but lost four straight prior to that and I'm still not sure what they do well, if anything. Nobody is pretending the Raiders are good but the Colts giving a field goal on the road just seems absurd to me.

JP: Indianapolis (-3) over OAKLAND

Am I really giving a field goal with this Colts team on the road? Yes, I am, because they're going against Jon Gruden's dumpster fire Raiders (though they did manage to fleece Dallas out of a 1st round pick for Amari Cooper, so maybe things are looking up?). Anyways, this would be the worst game of the weekend, if not for...

JC: ARIZONA (+1) over San Francisco

I almost didn't make a pick on this game so as to not acknowledge that it even exists. I'm already having nightmares about the Oakland-Indianapolis game (a 4:05 kickoff) going to halftime, and then an injury in the Los Angeles-Green Bay game (the only other 4:25 kickoff) forcing an extended commercial break, leading to NFL Red Zone showing like, 12 consecutive snaps of this game.

JP: San Francisco (-1) over ARIZONA

I mean, I should probably just pick against you in both of these games just so we have a reason to pay attention to the results...

JC: MINNESOTA (Pick'em) over New Orleans

Every single week, that Buffalo win over the Vikings will become more and more inexplicable. I know less than 10 minutes ago I said that we can trust the Saints but not the Vikings, but if we treat that Bills game as a fluke of epic proportions and ignore it as an outlier, then Minnesota might be the second-best team in the NFC. Their only competition would be this New Orleans team, who barely escaped Baltimore last week thanks to perhaps the flukiest extra point miss in history. If the Saints win, that gives them two consecutive road wins over top-10 teams and maybe even makes them a favorite going into next week when they host the Rams, which feels worth mentioning. This does seem like a good value play for Minnesota, though - they're better than their getting credit for, even if this line probably seems fair.

JP: New Orleans (Pick'em) over MINNESOTA

As bad as those other games are, this one should be the matchup of the week. Both these teams can really sling it, and neither is too keen on playing defense. I've been high on the Vikings all season long, but New Orleans' offensive balance gives them the edge here.

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 8-6
Season: 42-60-5
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-3
Season's Disagreements: 14-19-1

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 9-5
Season: 47-55-5
Last Week's Disagreements: 3-2
Season's Disagreements: 19-14-1

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