As if Week 2 of the 2018 NFL season didn’t already inform us, Week 3’s slate of games told us that a lot of what we think we know about teams so far is probably dead wrong. Given that there aren’t very many “juicy” matchups this weekend, save for the Thursday night clash between two heavyweights, how things shake down on Sunday will give a lot of credence to which teams are legit, and which ones were all hype. Let’s break some of the top games on this Week 4 slate. Here are the Week 4 NFL Picks:
Minnesota at Los Angeles (-7.5)
With all due respect to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Thursday Night Football game between the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings is the NFC’s early-season version of Ali vs. Frazier.
Even though the team in eastern Pennsylvania was the reigning Super Bowl champion, nearly everyone agreed that the Rams and Vikings were among the two best teams in the NFC entering this season, if not the NFL overall.
In a best-case scenario for football fans, we’ll get the answer to football’s version of the irresistible force paradox: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”
After scoring a league-high 478 points last season, which qualified among the top 30 highest scoring offenses in NFL history, the Rams spent the offseason doubling-down on their team that went 11-5 last year. While most of those upgrades took place on defense, Los Angeles did trade away their first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to acquire wide receiver, Brandin Cooks.
Through three games so far, Cooks is currently 5th in the NFL in receiving yards, catching at least five passes for no less than 87 yards in all three games. While he’s failed to find the end zone this season, his teammates have helped out, as four different pass catchers have caught touchdowns for the Rams this season already.
Unsurprisingly, one of those touchdown passes went in the direction of Todd Gurley, who already has five combined touchdowns in three games. Last year’s Offensive Player of the Year has also picked up where he left off last year, standing in fourth place in the NFL with 255 rushing yards.
Combined with the fact that Jared Goff has taken a step forward in his development as a quarterback, it seems impossible for teams to figure out which poison they’re willing to pick when facing Los Angeles.
But then again, Minnesota’s defense is far from ordinary. In fact, you could argue that no defense in the NFL has the most “one through eleven” talent across each starter that can match up to Minnesota. There are Pro Bowl players at every level of the defense, with a devastating combination of youth, talent, and experience.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter has three sacks already on the season, linebacker Anthony Barr remains one of the most athletically gifted players in the league, while cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith continue to be among the very best at their respective positions in the league.
That’s why this game will very likely be decided on the other side of the football. Minnesota’s offense needs to show it can bounce back after they were bullied by the defensive front seven of the Buffalo Bills last week. If they can protect quarterback Kirk Cousins, he’ll have the opportunity to attack a Rams secondary that’ll be without cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, both of whom will miss the game due to injuries. But such protection is easier said than done when the Rams defense boasts a defensive line featuring Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers.
We still think the Rams will win this game, but the 7.5-point spread – which went up from an opening line of 6.5 points – feels really high, and a bit too reactive to Minnesota’s loss last week. That’s why we say you should take the points.
Pick: Minnesota (+7.5)
Miami at New England (-7)
One team is 3-0, using steady-if-not-unspectacular play from the quarterback position to put themselves in position to win the game at the end. The other team is 1-2, with an offense that scores the 8th-fewest points per game in the NFL at the moment, and has major questions across all of its skill positions.
In any other realm of football, we’d quickly point to the New England Patriots being the former and the Miami Dolphins being the latter. But in football’s version of a “Freaky Friday” plot, Miami is the 3-0 team, and New England is the one wondering where the heck their offensive output is going to come from.
There are plenty of people who’ll tell you that the Dolphins are the most “smoke and mirrors” 3-0 team in the NFL, and they’d have plenty of merit in arguing so. They’ve beaten a team whose quarterback situation is a complete disaster (Tennessee). They’ve beaten another team starting a rookie quarterback (the New York Jets). Last week, they beat a team that’s part of a complete organizational disaster (Oakland). But regardless of their strength of schedule, Miami did what “good teams” are supposed to do: take care of business against teams you’re better than.
But before we entirely discount Miami’s 3-0 record, we should acknowledge the fact that their defense is very quietly having a great start to the season. Cornerback Xavien Howard is becoming one of the very best young corners in the NFL, and alongside fellow cornerbacks Bobby McCain and jack-of-all-defensive-back-spots Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miami has the ability to match up with almost any wide receiver. That’s not even mentioning the fact that safeties T.J. McDonald and Reshad Jones have been excellent; Jones, in particular, remains one of the best safeties in the NFL that nobody talks about.
That’s why this matchup against New England is so intriguing — because New England has badly struggled to throw the ball downfield. Quarterback Tom Brady is 25th in the NFL in passing yards right now, as he struggles to find guys to whom he can throw the ball. Teams are double-covering Rob Gronkowski (who’s starting to show his age and wear-and-tear regardless), and the rest of New England’s patchwork receivers have done nothing to take advantage of that (wide receiver Chris Hogan, in particular, has been disappointing). It’s no wonder that running back James White has been Brady’s most targeted receiver this year, leading the team with 14 catches and two touchdown receptions.
While it’s true that we discuss the “New England’s dynasty is coming to a close” storyline around this same time every year, there feels like some merit to things this year. Brady is 41 years old. The talent, on both sides of the ball, is thinning.
And yet, we’ll still give the “never bet against a wounded New England team” mantra one more try (even after getting burned by them last week against Detroit). If they lose again this week and fall three full games behind the Dolphins, then we can officially hit the panic button.
Pick: New England (-7)
Cincinnati at Atlanta (-5.5)
The Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons are two of those teams that are going to be very difficult to get a real handle on this early in the season, mostly because the two of them have been ravaged by injury, and not coincidentally, have played rather inconsistently as a result.
Both teams looked like they could be in a position to knock off their respective division winners this season. After starting out the season 2-0, with an impressive win over the division-rival Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals got their first blemish in the loss column when they were defeated by the Carolina Panthers last week. Meanwhile, after the Falcons rebounded from their season-opening primetime loss against the Philadelphia Eagles, they picked up their second loss of the season in stunning fashion, blowing a mid-4th quarter lead to the New Orleans Saints and ultimately falling in overtime by a 43-37 score.
After giving up over 300 passing yards in back-to-back weeks, the Falcons’ passing defense is the 7th-worst in the league. It didn’t get any better for them when safety Ricardo Allen tore his Achilles tendon and was declared out for the season as well. Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton has played well this season, and the onus could be on him to help drive Cincinnati’s offense, especially if running back Joe Mixon misses Sunday’s game as expected. It sounds like Dalton will have the services of wide receiver A.J. Green, who missed most of the second half of Cincinnati’s game against Carolina with an injury to his pelvis.
This game could very possibly turn into a shootout, considering that the Bengals’ passing defense has been only marginally better themselves, and they’re facing a Falcons’ offense that’s getting its passing attack in sync. After an ugly start to the season, quarterback Matt Ryan has improved in each of the past two games, including a 374-yard and five-touchdowns passing effort against New Orleans last week. As teams try to clamp down on superstar wide receiver Julio Jones, that’s allowed for wide receiver Calvin Ridley to break out early in the season. Atlanta’s first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft had three touchdown receptions against New Orleans and had been targeted at least five times in each of the past two games (and found the end zone in both of those games as well).
Or maybe the game could come down to something as simple as turnovers, which usually ends up being the biggest tipping point in the NFL anyway. The Bengals forced key turnovers late in the game in their two wins, but couldn’t do the same against Carolina. Meanwhile, the Falcons only have one turnover in their past two games. It could be that the first team to make a mistake ends up paying for it at the end.
Considering neither team sounds like they’ll have too much trouble moving the ball, the 5.5-point line here feels somewhat high. Most people betting on this game feel the same, as the line started at six, and is even as low as five in some sportsbooks; in other words, money is flowing in the direction of the Bengals.
While Atlanta tends to do better at home in general, the spread seems too large. We’re again going with the points.
Pick: Cincinnati (+5.5)
Tampa Bay at Chicago (-3)
One of the main things that bettors should always remember is that when a line moves in a particular direction, it’s reflective of where the money is flowing in regards to a particular wager; it has almost nothing to do with whether a sportsbook thinks one team is better than the other.
That’s why the line in this Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Chicago Bears game feels a bit strange. What opened up as Chicago being two-point favorites has now bumped up to three points, meaning people are primarily picking Chicago to win this game. While the Bears are 2-1, and sitting atop the NFC North, is that really the smart move?
Sure, the Bears’ defense has been terrific and looks like another page in the book of great defenses that called Halas Hall their home. Headlined by the acquisition of Khalil Mack, who has recorded a sack and a forced fumble in all three games he’s played with the Bears, Chicago’s defense is rich with talent. You might not find a better trio of pass rushers than Mack, Akeem Spence, and Leonard Floyd. At linebacker, there’s veteran Danny Trevathan and rookie Roquan Smith; the latter could be really good in the very near future. Even the secondary has steady-if-not-unspectacular players like Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara at cornerback.
But Tampa Bay moved the ball against the under-performing defense of the New Orleans Saints, the still-dangerous defense of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the all-talent-but-little-substance defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even after spotting Pittsburgh every chance to put the game away last Monday, thanks to the three first-half interceptions thrown by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Buccaneers had ample chances to pull off a comeback win.
Chicago will unquestionably pin their ears back and go right after Fitzpatrick, hoping he’ll continue to make more mistakes, and knowing that the Buccaneers’ rushing game is virtually nowhere to be found. But what if that strategy doesn’t work, and Tampa Bay continues to put up points? Tampa’s wide receivers are still more talented than the Bears’ cornerbacks. Tampa has enough talent around Fitzpatrick that they can find mismatches in Chicago’s defense.
If that happens, Chicago might be in trouble. Nobody can trust Bears’ quarterback Mitch Trubisky to keep his team in the game in such circumstances. A one-year wonder at the University of North Carolina, even in his second season in the NFL, Trubisky’s lack of experience is shining through. It’s a very familiar story for the Bears right now, with an all-world defense dragging along an anemic offense.
With the weather looking to be clear and in the low-70’s in Chicago this weekend, the conditions are perfect for Tampa to let it fly. This is another line that feels like a big overreaction to Chicago’s win and Tampa’s loss in Week 3. Don’t get suckered in by that.
Pick: Tampa Bay (+3)
Kansas City (-5) at Denver
Even though it’ll only be the first day of October when this game takes place, it’s ok to go ahead and say it: the offense of the Kansas City Chiefs is legit. Patrick Mahomes and company aren’t just beating defenses; they’re downright torching and demoralizing them.
And even with the game taking place in Broncos Stadium at Mile High this Monday evening, there aren’t a many compelling reasons to think that the Denver Broncos are going to be able to stop Kansas City’s offensive juggernaut.
Mahomes is likely annoying the NFL record keepers because he keeps forcing them to re-write NFL records each week. It’s saying something when a 314 yards and three touchdown performance elicits more of a “ho-hum” from the collective NFL fan base, as it’s somehow his “worst” performance of the season. Still, no quarterback in NFL history has thrown 13 touchdowns over this first three games of the season, as Mahomes has in 2018.
It’s hard to think the secondary of the Broncos is sleeping well this week, knowing just what they’re up against on Monday.
We’ve typically associated “great defense” with the Broncos over the past few years, especially considering they had the league’s best pass defense in 2015 and 2016, but things are very different right now. Through three games this season, the quarterbacks the Broncos have faced have completed 69.5 percent of their passes, thrown five touchdowns, and registered a collective passer rating of 102.2.
To make matters worse, they’re giving up over 71 yards per game to opposing tight ends, and happen to be facing Travis Kelce this week, who’s currently third in the NFL in receptions (16) and second in the NFL in receiving yards (229) among tight ends.
As most people know, Kansas City’s defense isn’t much better; in fact, it’s actually worse. They’re still dead last in yards allowed per game and tied for last in passing yards allowed per game. After stomping out to a 35-7 lead against San Francisco on Sunday, Kansas City was poised to allow a backdoor cover to the 49ers (the Chiefs were favored by 7.5 points) before 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo blew out his knee and took the wind out of the 49ers as a whole.
While Garoppolo wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire for the 49ers, he was probably a bigger concern for Kansas City than the guy they’re facing this week in Case Keenum. Despite being brought in to bring some reliability to the quarterback position, Keenum has not been very good this year, throwing only three touchdowns in five games, juxtaposed with five interceptions. He’s 17th in the NFL in passing yards right now and 21st in yards per attempt. As far as Broncos quarterbacks, those sound more like Trevor Siemian numbers than Peyton Manning numbers.
Don’t outthink yourself with this one. Kansas City is 7-0 against the spread dating back to early December of last year, and they’ve won three straight games against the Broncos in Denver. Under head coach Vance Joseph, the Broncos have been plagued by inconsistency and mental mistakes. Conversely, Andy Reid is a coach you don’t bet against in the early part of the season.
Pick: Kansas City (-5)