In what shouldn’t be a surprise to seasoned NFL fans, Week 2 of the 2018 season proved that a lot of what we thought we knew after Week 1 was dead wrong, and there’s still a whole bunch of things we don’t know yet. But, that shouldn’t stop us from taking a look at the NFL Week 3 Marquee Matchups in store and provide our analysis and predictions for some of the best games of the weekend.
Cincinnati at Carolina (-3)
Entering the season with a great deal of uncertainty around the present and the future of this team, the Carolina Panthers have started out the season with a 1-1 record, but their lone win and loss have both come at a price. Their offensive line is without two key starters, they’re now without two starters in the secondary, and they’re still missing the services of linebacker Thomas Davis, who’s serving his four-game suspension.
With teams like New Orleans and Atlanta already residing in their division, and the Falcons gaining a division win over the Panthers last Sunday in Carolina’s 31-24 defeat in Atlanta, the Panthers face the added pressure of a given loss pushing them back in the NFC South standings.
Meanwhile, lost amidst all the talk around the offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the thoughts of the whether Baltimore Ravens could compete for a division title, or the three-ring circus that is the Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals are the lone team in the division with a 2-0 record. They’ve not only scored 68 points in two games but already picked up a key division win (against Baltimore) along the way.
In other words, there’s a good chance that if the Steelers continue to have the season from hell, and Baltimore continues to demonstrate the inconsistency that’s plagued them since they won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season, the Bengals are in prime position to win the AFC North.
Of course, discussing such ideas should be saved for a much later day, considering we’re barely rounding the third week of September. Plus, for as good as they’ve looked so far, Cincinnati is already banged up. Their revamped offensive line was thin, to begin with, and they just lost center Billy Price – a rookie fourth round pick who became their opening day starter – to an injury.
The Bengals were hoping their much-improved offensive line would lead to greater returns via the ground game, but it’s tough to hope for anything along those lines when all three of the running backs atop the depth chart – Joe Mixon, Gio Bernard, and Thomas Rawls – are on the injury report. Mixon looks like he’s going to miss Sunday’s game, meaning Bernard and Rawls will probably split duties.
While Carolina would prefer opponents to try and run the ball against their stout defensive front, the Panthers might still benefit from Cincinnati being one-dimensional on offense, forcing Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ passing game to beat them. While Dalton is playing well this season, that’s never a recipe you want to rely on if you’re a Bengals fan.
If you’re looking for a decisive advantage in terms of picking this game, you’ll have to keep looking. Cincinnati is 7-3 against the spread outright over their past 10, and 3-1 against the spread in their last four home games. Unfortunately, Carolina themselves are 5-1 against the spread in their last six home games.
Ultimately, we’ll give the edge to Carolina’s defensive front seven being potent enough to stop Cincinnati’s offense to a great extent, similar to what the Panthers did against the Dallas Cowboys. Plus, that game was in Carolina, and so is this one.
Pick: Carolina (-3)
Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams (-7)
In the battle of two teams that didn’t exist – at least in terms of their current home location – just two years ago, the Los Angeles Chargers and the Los Angeles Rams could very well feature two of the most exciting offenses in the NFL.
Another group that’s gotten overlooked because their defensive counterparts were carved up by Patrick Mahomes in Week 1, and they carved up a near-hopeless Buffalo Bills defense last week, the offense of the Chargers has played rather well, for the most part, outside of a few ghastly drops by the wide receivers in Week 1. Even with those drops, quarterback Phillip Rivers is currently 4th in the NFL in most passing yards (680 through two games), and tied for third in the NFL with six touchdown passes.
In any other situation, how he’d match up against a pair of All Pro-caliber cornerbacks like Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters of the Rams would be a fascinating subplot, but Rivers could very well keep going about his way without really having to worry about either of them. Rivers has completed 57 passes this season, but over 40% of them (23) have been caught by running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler; those two have combined for three of Rivers’ six touchdown passes as well.
While there might be some concern about Gordon’s availability for the game this Sunday, at least through the middle of the week, he’s a full participant in practice, so the Chargers should have both his and Ekeler’s services against the Rams. He’s coming off a week in which he scored three touchdowns against the Bills, and has over 230 combined yards in his first two games.
As far as the Rams, we know what they’re all about. Running back Todd Gurley is currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards, though it’s taken him the highest number of rushing attempts in the NFL to date (39) to get that yardage total; he’s averaging only 3.8 yards per carry right now. But Gurley still has four combined touchdowns and remains one of the most singularly dominant players in the NFL. Gurley’s presence as a runner makes the Rams offense run, opening up the play-action passing game for quarterback Jared Goff.
The matchup between head coach Sean McVay figuring out ways to put the ball in Gurley’s hands in the running game, versus a Chargers’ defense that’s held Kareem Hunt to less than 50 rushing yards and LeSean McCoy to less than 30 rushing yards is worth keeping an eye upon.
While this feels like another victory for the Rams, the seven-point spread is a little hard to get behind; the greater surprise is that the line might’ve gone from 6.5 points to seven, meaning there’s money flowing in the Rams’ direction. The Chargers might be too banged up on defense to stop the Rams, but they have enough talent on offense to keep things close and maybe try to make a rally at the end of the game.
It just feels like this will be closer than people think. Bet accordingly.
Pick: Chargers (+7)
San Francisco at Kansas City (-6.5)
Are there any superlatives left to use about the performance of Patrick Mahomes as the new quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs?
Through two games this season, Mahomes already has an NFL-high 10 touchdown passes; no player in NFL history ever accomplished that. With four touchdown throws in his first game and six in his second game, he became only the second player in NFL history — along with Drew Bledsoe in 1997 — to throw at least four touchdowns in his first two games of the season. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, Mahomes had more touchdown passes (six) than incomplete passes (five). While it’s ludicrous — maybe? — to think that Mahomes could keep up with such a pace if he did, he’d finish with 80 touchdown passes this season; that would easily shatter the record of 55 touchdown passes set by Peyton Manning in 2013.
These aren’t just dink and dunk passes, either. Mahomes’ 10.58 yards per attempt is tops in the NFL, and he leads the league in average depth of target on his throws as well. With wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins being able to use their speed and big-play abilities to stretch out defenses vertically, and tight end Travis Kelce being able to use his athleticism to present matchup nightmares up the seams and in the middle of the field, Mahomes can attack a defense at any spot on the football field.
And yet, amidst all of this hype that presently surrounds the Chiefs offense, we’re going to tell you to be very careful when potentially taking the Chiefs this week; in fact, we think you should probably go in the opposite direction, because this smells like a major trap game for the Chiefs (and for bettors).
Lost in all the hoopla around the Chiefs is the fact that their defense is absolutely wretched. They’re currently dead last in the NFL in yards allowed per game, dead last in passing yards allowed per game, and dead last in the NFL overall according to the advanced metrics (the latter of which have them ranked 29th against the pass and 24th against the run).
The offense of the San Francisco 49ers hasn’t been the well-oiled machine many people thought it would be when this season started, but they still have one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL in Jimmy Garoppolo and one of the best offensive minds in head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Garoppolo has struggled in his first couple of games, but that’s in large part because his supporting cast hasn’t done much to help him. However, if wide receiver Marquise Goodwin gets in a full practice this week, that’ll be a huge boost for Garoppolo, who had great chemistry with Goodwin down the stretch last year (35 targets in the 49ers’ previous five games of 2017).
But regardless of whether Goodwin plays or not, expect San Francisco to come into Kansas City with the simple game plan of keeping Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense off the field, by utilizing a running game that controls the clock. Don’t forget, the 49ers’ head coach is a Shanahan, and they currently have the NFL’s leading rusher in Matt Breida, who’s coming off a 138-yard rushing performance last week. Breida and Alfred Morris combined for 25 carries for 186 yards last week.
The line for this game started at 6 earlier this week and has crept up to 6.5. If it moves up to seven, this is a juicy bet… to go in the opposite direction.
Pick: San Francisco (+6.5)
New Orleans and Atlanta (-3)
As the saying goes: familiarity breeds contempt. That’s why the two teams in this game – the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons – separated by only two state borders and less than 500 miles, commonly refer to this twice-a-year matchup as the “hate game.”
Again, as you might expect from two division opponents, these games tend to be darn near a toss-up. Atlanta is 3-1 against New Orleans the last four times they’ve played in Atlanta, and Atlanta is 3-1 against New Orleans the previous four times they’ve anywhere. Over the course of his career, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is 8-11 against New Orleans.
Both of these clubs were very common picks among NFL prognosticators of all levels, regarding making the playoffs in the NFC, if not winning the division outright. But two weeks into the season, we’re still figuring who these teams really are.
Even though they finally managed to find the end zone during their 31-24 win over the Carolina Panthers last week, the Falcons’ offensive struggles continue. Quarterback Matt Ryan is outside the top 15 quarterbacks in the NFL in passing yards, and outside the top 20 in touchdown passes. Despite having a transcendent talent like Julio Jones at wide receiver, Jones and Ryan haven’t connected on a touchdown throw since the weekend after Thanksgiving of 2017.
Outside of Jones and Ryan, the Falcons continue to lose key starting players to injury. This week, defensive end Takkarist McKinley found himself on the injury report, and after not playing last Sunday, it looks like Atlanta is going to be without running back Devonta Freeman for the next few weeks. How much more attrition they can sustain has to be a concern.
New Orleans was a trendy pick to both win the NFC South and even represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year, but that’s not going to happen if their current inconsistencies continue. New Orleans allowed a startling 48 points to Tampa Bay in Week 1 and then trailed for the first three quarters of the game against the lowly Cleveland Browns this past Sunday. Although they took the lead in the fourth quarter, they almost blew the win when the Browns connected on a deep touchdown pass with 1:16 remaining in the game.
Despite having the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year in their backfield, the Saints are currently averaging a miserable 2.9 yards per carry right now, and outside of wide receiver Michael Thomas – who’s started off the season on a torrid pace, with 28 catches (#1 in the NFL) for 269 yards (#2 in the NFL) and three touchdowns (#1 in the NFL) – the Saints don’t have another reliable pass catcher, outside of utilizing Alvin Kamara as an outlet receiver.
Ultimately this comes down to the fact that both teams just play better at home, regardless of who the opponent may be. New Orleans is 0-3 against the spread in their last three away games, and they’re 2-4 over their last six games as underdogs, regardless of venue. Division games like these tend to be decided by right around three points, so keep it simple and stick with the (home) favorite here.
Pick: Atlanta (-3)
Pittsburgh (-1) at Tampa Bay
Right around Labor Day just a couple of weeks ago, if you were looking at the Monday Night Football lineup for the 2018 season, you almost certainly would’ve pointed to the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and called it out as a potential “laugher,” with the problematic latter team likely to be trounced thanks to the offense of the former team.
My, how the tables have turned.
As ridiculous as this would’ve sounded just a couple of weeks ago, the betting money in this game is going in the direction of Tampa Bay winning, as the early lines in this game had Pittsburgh as two-point favorites, but now the spread is down to one point. It’s entirely possible that, by Sunday or Monday afternoon, this line could be dead even.
The Steelers are coming into this game, which presently features the current NFL passing leader in Ryan Fitzpatrick, a week after getting carved up like a holiday bird by Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. To add insult to injury, many players on the Steelers’ defense admitted that they were unprepared for Mahomes’ talent and ability. That’s not a good look.
Over the past two games, Pittsburgh has allowed wide receiver Jarvis Landry of the Cleveland Browns to tally 106 yards receiving and then gave up 299 yards receiving to the combination of Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce last week.
In recent years, the Steelers can go into games knowing that their offense has the ability to keep up in any shootout. But is that really the case anymore? As we all know, the Steelers don’t have Le’Veon Bell, and won’t have him for the foreseeable future. Sure, James Conner has looked good in Bell’s absence, but Tampa Bay hasn’t allowed a single running back to run for more than 30 yards against them this season; Corey Clement of the Eagles ran for 30 yards last Sunday, and Alvin Kamara ran for just 29 yards the week before.
Here’s a sobering fact for anyone banking on the Steelers’ passing game: Ben Roethlisberger has failed to throw for 300 or more yards in a road game in 23 of the past 24 times the Steelers have played on the road.
Meanwhile, Tampa is playing with a confidence that their offense is genuinely unstoppable. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken has done a masterful job of calling plays, a responsibility which he was given by head coach Dirk Koetter right before the season started. Clearly, that shift in responsibilities is working.
When you see the betting public so overtly moving in one direction, that’s usually a red flag. But it’s hard to go against the consensus here. Tampa Bay is 7-2 against the spread in their last nine games (dating back to mid-November of 2017), and 3-0 in their last three home games as an underdog. Conversely, Pittsburgh is 1-3 against the spread in road games in that same span of time.
An already tense situation in Pittsburgh could get even more tense with another loss, and this game seems like anything but an easy win for the Steelers, unlike what we might’ve thought earlier this month.
Pick: Tampa Bay (+1)