With a full week of regular season games for the 2018 season of the NFL officially under our belt, let’s take a close look at five of the premier games of this week, and provide our predictions and picks for the outcome(s):
Carolina at Atlanta (-5.5)
As two of the teams that were not only considered to be among the favorites to make the postseason in the NFC but perhaps win the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons square off in an early divisional matchup, coming off different results in their opening game of 2018.
The Falcons certainly had their fair share of responsibility for those people who groused about the NFL’s opening game of 2018 being considered “boring.” Accumulating less than 300 yards of total offense and not finding the end zone until the fourth quarter, the Falcons lost 18-12 to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Panthers didn’t exactly put up a bonanza of offense themselves on Sunday, accumulating less than 300 yards of offense themselves and only scoring two touchdowns themselves. The main difference was that their 16 points were enough to pull out a win, by a 16-8 score against the Dallas Cowboys.
To make matters worse, Atlanta was dealt two devastating injuries in the aftermath of their defeat, losing Pro Bowl defenders Keanu Neal and Deion Jones to season-ending injuries. The two of them represented irreplaceable cogs in a defense that was supposed to emerge as the strength of this team.
By and large, Atlanta’s defense played well against Philadelphia, keeping the Eagles out of the end zone in the first half and surrendering only 232 yards. But with the Falcons unable to turn drives into touchdowns, the tired Atlanta defense allowed the Eagles — specifically, running back Jay Ajayi — to start gashing them on the ground.
That feeds right into what Carolina will want to do, with quarterback Cam Newton handing the ball off to running backs Christian McCaffrey and C.J Anderson; the duo had 17 carries for 85 yards against Dallas. It’ll be imperative for Carolina to establish a balanced offense, considering Carolina’s already-questionable offensive line will likely be without two key offensive linemen: right tackle Darryl Williams (who suffered a season-ending knee injury) and right guard Trai Turner (currently in the concussion protocol).
But outside of wide receiver Julio Jones putting up big numbers — although zero touchdowns, yet again — against Philadelphia, the Falcons’ offense looked downright anemic at times, with Matt Ryan looking nothing like the guy who won the MVP award just two years ago. Carolina’s defense isn’t as deep as Philadelphia’s defense, but they are plenty capable of creating traffic along the defensive line. The Panthers also made life very difficult for Dak Prescott in Week 1, and could very well do the same for Ryan in Week 2.
That’s why the fact that Atlanta started out as 5.5 favorites, with the line going up to six points as of midweek, is rather dubious. Although Atlanta has beaten Carolina the last three times they’ve played in Atlanta, Carolina is the more physical team and the team that simply looked better last week. Combine that with the fact that Carolina is 6-3 against the spread in their last nine road games and the fact that Carolina’s +207 spread for a moneyline pick (and a net-gain return on investment if you take the points), and we recommend Carolina as a solid pick this week.
Pick: Carolina (+5.5)
Minnesota at Green Bay (-1.5)
As the kids like to say: “Mama, there goes that man again.”
Unless you’re an NFL fan who’s been living under a rock since Sunday afternoon, we’re all familiar with the way quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers absolutely tore the heart out of the Chicago Bears in the second half of Sunday evening’s matchup, after seemingly suffering a devastating knee injury, leading Green Bay to a 24-23 comeback victory.
Everyone took notice of what Rodgers’ did; that includes the oddsmakers, who initially declared the Packers as two-point favorites against the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday (though the line has moved to Green Bay being favored by 1.5 points as of mid-week).
Betting against Rodgers, even with him playing on one leg, is the true definition of a gamble. But even with a very healthy respect of his abilities, let’s not forget that Rodgers led his comeback against a team starting a quarterback who hasn’t even played 16 games in his NFL career, and two offensive coaches who have no experience when the lights shine the brightest.
In other words: the Minnesota Vikings are vastly different animals than the Chicago Bears (no pun intended).
Minnesota doesn’t have Khalil Mack, but they do have Everson Griffen, who not only finished fourth in the NFL in sacks last season (he had 13) but has recorded double-digit sacks in three of the past four seasons. Along with Griffen, the Vikings have perhaps the most talented defense, top to bottom, in the NFL. There’s no weakness to exploit. With Minnesota, won’t be defensive backs who drop interceptions that are right in their hands, safeties that are badly out of position and allow long catch-and-run touchdowns, and a non-existent pass rush when things matter the most.
And we haven’t even talked about Minnesota’s revamped offense yet. The Vikings made the biggest acquisition of this past offseason when they signed quarterback Kirk Cousins, which actually helped them assemble a remarkably balanced offense. In their win against the San Francisco 49ers last week, Cousins threw a couple of touchdown passes, but running back Dalvin Cook — who missed the majority of last season with a torn ACL — had 95 total yards on 22 touches; Minnesota’s rushing game, with Cook and Latavius Murray, had 116 yards on the ground.
Again, at the risk of taking anything away from Rodgers, don’t forget that Chicago was up 20-0 against Green Bay at halftime of their game, before Chicago mistakenly assumed they could just quit on the game at halftime. Minnesota will watch the game tape, and with a solid coaching infrastructure in place, not allow that to happen.
Minnesota is considered by many to be the favorite to win the NFC outright this year and with good reason. Considering you can make more money than you wager by taking the points in this game, it’s hard to pass on that bet.
Pick: Minnesota (+1.5)
Kansas City at Pittsburgh (-4)
There’s a common adage in sports that teams and players enjoy a tie as much as they’d enjoy kissing their sister.
So you can imagine how much the Pittsburgh Steelers want to move on from such outcomes, especially considering they tied the otherwise-lowly Cleveland Browns in Week 1, in what was an absolutely dreadful game for both teams.
Speaking of dreadful: there’s no better way than to describe the performance by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger last week. Not only did Roethlisberger throw three interceptions against a team that registered an NFL-low seven interceptions all of last season, but he also fumbled the ball two times as well, turning the ball over a total of five times.
Meanwhile, quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs had the exact opposite of Roethlisberger’s day last Sunday. Proving that he can facilitate game-changing plays from virtually anywhere on the field. Mahomes threw four touchdown passes, though he was helped in great deal by wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s three total touchdowns of his own.
And yet, when the line for this game opened earlier this week, the Steelers were favored by five points, though the line dropped to four points as of midweek.
Admittedly, Roethlisberger has notoriously become two different players at home and on the road. You can expect virtually anything else besides another five-turnover game. He should bounce back on Sunday, as the Steelers play their home opener against a Kansas City defense that allowed 424 passing yards and three touchdowns to Phillip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers last weekend. For Kansas City, it’s still a pick-your-poison: do they drop everyone in coverage to take away the pass? Or do they try to have some balance to stop James Conner, and then hope they don’t get torched?
But the other big question is whether the Steelers really want to get into a shootout with the Chiefs. For all the investments they’ve made through the draft, Pittsburgh feels like they’re not-quite-there-yet on that side of the football for the umpteenth year in a row. Outside of second-year outside linebacker TJ Watt, they have virtually no pass rush off the edge.
Pittsburgh’s secondary is maddeningly ineffective, blowing a 14-point lead to the Browns, on a day where there was pouring down rain. Joe Haden is reliable at one cornerback spot, but they can’t say the same about Artie Burns. Their safeties — Sean Davis and first-round pick Terrell Edmunds — are still on the developmental path.
Plus, with all the misdirection that Kansas City uses in their offense, it’s going to put a lot of stress on the Steelers’ primarily zone defense to maintain discipline and not create any seams which Kansas City’s playmakers to exploit.
That’s why Kansas City with +180 odds for a moneyline pick is very tempting, as is the near 1:1 ROI (-1%). While could be overreacting to one game, it just feels like there might be some bad juju around the Steelers.
Pick: Kansas City (+4)
New England (-1) at Jacksonville
The last time we saw the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars square off in a game that meant something, it was played on a cold day in Massachusetts, and the Patriots greatly benefitted from the Jaguars reverting to ultra-conservative play calling, as well as some highly dubious calls made by the officials, allowing New England to pull off the win in the AFC Championship game.
So, as the two play in a rematch, of sorts, in Jacksonville, how much of a “revenge” factor is there in this game?
New England enters the game as the road favorite, and rightfully so; they’re still the defending AFC Champions, and they’re still, by and large, the best team in the AFC.
However, they’re certainly not without their warts. Even the most ardent Patriots fans would argue that while quarterback Tom Brady played well, his performance wasn’t quite up to his usual standard. The defense, which looked increasingly suspect over the course of last season, allowed Houston running back Lamar Miller to run for 98 yards against them; that was Miller’s highest rushing output over his past 17 games.
New England’s depth at wide receiver is as thin as any team in the NFL, considering they’re using Phillip Dorsett – whom many thought he might be a training camp cut – as a starting wide receiver. The Patriots group of running backs is a MASH unit themselves. The Patriots could be without the services of both Rex Burkhead, who was suddenly on the injury report with a concussion, and Sony Michel, who has yet to be cleared due to his preseason knee injury. Without a running game, that’s going to allow Jacksonville’s front four to pin their ears back and go after Brady, which plays to their strengths. The Jaguars have the speed at linebacker to watch out for running backs like James White leaking out of the backfield, with White only catching three passes for 22 yards the last time these two played.
But, speaking of backfields: what will Jacksonville do if they’re without Leonard Fournette, who is very questionable to play after sustaining a hamstring injury last week? New England will likely force Jacksonville to beat them with Blake Bortles — at least as much as possible — while shutting down TJ Yeldon and Corey Grant.
Interestingly enough, this line went from the Patriots being favored by two to the Patriots being favored by one, meaning the money is flowing in Jacksonville’s direction, even though Jacksonville is 4-4 against the spread at home over their last eight. Unsurprisingly, New England is 5-2 against the spread as road favorites.
Even as good as Jacksonville’s defense might be, the AFC Championship game proved that if New England can successfully make Jacksonville “one dimensional (by stopping the Jaguars’ rushing attack), that’ll play right into the strengths of New England, as they’ll rely on the depth in their secondary to clamp down on Jacksonville’s receivers.
Don’t over think this one.
Pick: New England (-1)
Philadelphia (-3) at Tampa Bay
If you heard a collective scream on Sunday afternoon, it was probably the sound of thousands of football fans screaming about being eliminated from their survivor pool as early as Week 1 of the season, having picked the New Orleans Saints to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers had other ideas. Behind Fitzpatrick’s five combined touchdowns (four passing and one rushing), Tampa Bay pulled off one of the most shocking upsets of the early season, beating New Orleans on the road by a 48-40 score.
So now, the question is: what will the Buccaneers do for an encore?
Before jumping on the Tampa Bay hype wagon, we’d be remiss not to remind you that emotional wins by any sports teams are often followed by “hangovers,” especially for teams with not-as-reliable coaching; nobody is going to confuse Dirk Koetter — a head coach on the hottest of hot seats entering this season — for Vince Lombardi.
So, getting to the point: could Tampa Bay shock the world and beat the defending Super Bowl champions, and make it two wins in a row to start the season? If you’re bold enough to take the Buccaneers in a moneyline pick, you’ll receive a healthy +148 odds on the selection. Considering the Philadelphia Eagles themselves didn’t look like world-beaters in their season-opening against Atlanta, you could potentially make a case. Atlanta’s Julio Jones turned the Eagles’ secondary into mincemeat; could Mike Evans, who caught seven passes for 147 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans, do the same against Philadelphia? Don’t forget that Tampa Bay has DeSean Jackson, who loves to play against his former team.
But then again, was Tampa Bay’s win over New Orleans more about what the latter didn’t do, as opposed to what the former did do? Tampa’s players admitted that offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who took over play-calling duties from Koetter, didn’t really do anything special or unique in their past game, meaning there’s not a lot that would indicate they have some devious plan devised to pull off a second-straight upset.
Plus, it’s a well-known fact that Tampa has one of the worst home field advantages in the league, with the games frequently being so undersold that they’re blacked out locally. In the Dirk Koetter era (as head coach), Tampa is 8-8 at home. So, you can throw that out as an advantage against Tampa.
At the risk of overlooking Tampa again, the truth is that against the Buccaneers, Philadelphia has the luxury of rushing — and generating pressure with — just four linemen, and dropping back everyone else in coverage, forcing Fitzpatrick to make smart throws in traffic, or daring Tampa Bay to run the football. Neither of those two are strengths of the Buccaneers offense.
Unless you like to live dangerously, conventional wisdom should prevail here. Take the Eagles.
Pick: Philadelphia (-3)