While Week 7 of the 2018 NFL season doesn’t feature quite the same heavyweight matchups that we saw last week, there are several intriguing games on the docket that’ll likely have a direct impact on this year’s postseason race. Here are our top picks from big games in NFL’s Week 7.
Carolina at Philadelphia (-5)
The Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles both have three wins through six weeks of the 2018 NFL season, thanks to experiencing different types of “growing pains” during the early part of this year.
It’s no secret that the Philadelphia Eagles are the defending Super Bowl champions. But amidst the insane party in Philadelphia, after they won their first-ever Lombardi Trophy, people forgot that it was far from a foregone conclusion that they’d be contending for a repeat. The Eagles had to replace two key members of their offensive staff (offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo), and it was going to take time before Carson Wentz rounded back into his MVP-level form.
So while the early season losses were enough cause for alarm that Eagles fans were doing the unthinkable in actually calling for the benching of Wentz, Philadelphia’s 34-13 beatdown of the New York Giants last Thursday helps paint a better picture of what this team could – or should – be, over the remainder of the season.
By comparison, Carolina is looking for its own footing as well, trying to recapture the magic that helped their run to the Super Bowl in 2015. They felt they needed a change, which is why we saw so many new players and coaches come in over the last couple of years. In the 2018 offseason alone, the Panthers had three new coordinators come in, and that’s something that head coach Ron Rivera believes directly contributed to Carolina’s slow start.
Here’s the thing with Carolina: for a team known for its defense, it’s not nearly as dominant as it once was. The front four on defense is still very good, but it wasn’t the game-changing group from several years ago. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are still one of the league’s better pairings at linebacker, but between age and injuries, it’s evident they’ve lost a half a step (if not more). And the secondary was getting grim enough to where Carolina went out and signed safety Eric Reid in the offseason after he was effectively persona non-grata among NFL teams because of his kneeling-during-the-National-Anthem practices.
Conversely, while the Eagles do have a few glaring holes themselves, including a secondary that’s been getting bombed and an injury-depleted offensive line that’s taken a big dropoff from last year, other components are starting to point in the right direction. Wentz is coming off a game where he threw three touchdown passes and had a quarterback rating of 122. Alshon Jeffrey is getting healthier each week and caught two touchdowns against the Giants. Tight end Zach Ertz has entrenched himself in the conversation for the best tight end in the NFL right now.
The line for this game opened with the Eagles being favored by four points, and it quickly went up to five points. The Panthers are 0-2 against the spread this season and lost both of those two games straight up. For a team that looked somewhat uninspired last week against Washington, even though that line is a bit too high, the Eagles do feel like the better play in this spot.
Pick: Philadelphia (-5)
New Orleans at Baltimore (-2.5)
Both the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens frequently get overlooked when fans start thinking of the top contenders in each of their respective conferences. But a win by either one of these teams will go a long way towards cementing their status as a team to keep an eye on for the duration of this season.
After spending the weekend off following their thrashing of the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football, the last time we saw the Saints on the football field was when Drew Brees became the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage. But for all the accolades Brees has accomplished and likely will finish with by the end of his career, he’s never defeated the Ravens. Needless to say, that’ll be one last feather in his cap that he’ll be dying to add.
The Saints enter this game with the better record and the better offense, this is a very dangerous game for many reasons. For one, we associate the Saints with prolific scoring, but the Ravens have a greater point differential than the Saints this season. Second, while the Saints have won four straight games since their loss in the NFL’s opening weekend, you could easily make the argument that they haven’t played teams as good as Baltimore (or a good team in general).
The Ravens don’t get the attention they feel they deserve, but that’s mostly on account of being more “steak” than “sizzle.” Even when they win big, like their 21-0 dismantling of the Tennessee Titans, when they held their opponents to a laughable 106 yards of total offense, they don’t earn any style points in the process. Rather, it’s just with the old-school mentality of run the football down the opponent’s throat, sprinkle in some play-action passing, and stifle them with your defense.
The Ravens have given up only one touchdown in their last ten quarters of football. After sacking Marcus Mariota a league-high 11 times in one game, the Ravens have nine more sacks (26) than any other NFL team this season. They give up the third fewest yards per game on the ground (just under 83 yards) and are one of only five teams to surrender two or less rushing touchdowns all season.
More importantly, the Ravens know what’s at stake in this game. With a win, they could ascend to the top of the AFC North, especially if Cincinnati loses this week to the Kansas City Chiefs. Baltimore already has a quality division win over the Steelers, winning that game in Pittsburgh as well.
Frankly speaking, this might come down to the fact that Brees isn’t quite the same prolific passer outdoors as he is in the comfortable confines of New Orleans. Similarly, Baltimore’s two losses both came on the road, compared to their 2-0 record at home this season.
If they can make the Saints’ offense one-dimensional, which is much easier stated than done, they have a great chance to win this game.
Pick: Baltimore (-2.5)
Dallas at Washington (-1.5)
This once-hallowed rivalry has undoubtedly lost its luster, considering “America’s (so-called) Team” has toiled in mediocrity since Jimmy Johnson and his shellacked hair roamed the sidelines for the Dallas Cowboys, and Daniel Snyder bought the Washington Redskins and turned them into one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NFL.
Today, you could argue that these are two of the most maddening teams in the NFL. Just two years after drafting Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Cowboys are coming off back-to-back winning seasons, but still have zero playoff wins to show for it. After spending the past couple of offseason shoring up the defense (after seemingly thinking the offense was all set), now the Cowboys have their share of problems on the offensive side, largely because of a suddenly beat-up offensive line, a stunted growth curve for Prescott, and frequently uninspiring playcalling from offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. All of that is nicely packaged and gift-wrapped in the highly dubious coaching – or lack thereof – from head coach Jason Garrett. There’s a school of thought out there that if Dallas were to retain this same team, dismiss Garrett, and promote defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to head coach, the change alone could be worth as many as two or three wins over the course of this season.
Meanwhile, Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden does a decent job coaching, but it seems like it only happens when the team comes off a win. Simply put, the Redskins have a nasty habit of spending the week reading their press clippings and goofing around at practice after wins, and then suddenly realizing they need to take their weekly preparation following a loss, which eventually leads to a win. Gruden is one of the best play callers in the league and has a variety of ways to utilize any and all of the weapons at his disposal, but he’s criticized – and often rightfully – for having a team that’s shown a frustrating lack of attention to detail and professionalism.
From an on-the-field product, of these hated rivals feel pretty similar: strong running games (who would’ve thought this about the Redskins?), defenses buoyed by strong defensive lines (who would’ve thought that about the Cowboys?), and inconsistent play from both quarterbacks (albeit for very different reasons).
In regards to the first point, the winner of this game will be the team that stops the opposing rushing attack. The Redskins have proven time and time again that their team will go as far as Adrian Peterson’s success allows them to set up a play-action passing game. Meanwhile, Washington has to effectively sell out and do what very few teams have been able to do this season: shut down Ezekiel Elliott and force Prescott to beat them singlehandedly.
While Washington dropped from two-point favorites down to 1.5-point favorites (and that could continue to go down during the week), the Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this year. For right now, we’re giving the slightest of edges to Washington.
Pick: Washington (-1.5)
New England (-3) at Chicago
So the New England Patriots re-asserted themselves at the top of the AFC pecking order by defeating one of the league’s two most potent offenses. Now how will they fare in their encore performance, when they face one of the league’s most potent young defenses?
While last week’s win by New England over the Kansas City Chiefs was often discussed in the context of the GOAT putting “the next big thing” at quarterback in his proverbial place, and New England taking the cover off Rob Gronkowski and firing up the Gronkwagon for a few fun rides, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the Patriots’ running game. Sony Michel, one of the team’s two first round picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, is currently tied for 7th in the NFL in rushing attempts, and 9th in rushing yards. He has as many rushing touchdowns as more-highly-touted rookie running back Saquon Barkley and has one more trip to the end zone overall than Ezekiel Elliott. But most importantly, the successful running back – New England is ranked 8th in the NFL in rushing defense DVAO – allows the Patriots to not have to put all the pressure on Tom Brady to have to singlehandedly engineer wins for them.
While everyone will be talking about how Chicago’s defense will fare against Brady and company, especially considering Bears’ ace rusher Khalil Mack has been slowed with an ankle injury, the biggest subplot in this game has to be around the primest-of-prime opportunities for head coach Matt Nagy to come in and establish himself as one of the next great young coaches in the NFL.
Picked because of a mindset that veers towards offensive innovation and the development of young quarterbacks, Nagy has to show that his Bears offense can move the football against the older and slower defense of the Patriots. New England just doesn’t have the horses on defense to run with any of the guys assembled by the Bears this offseason, and they definitely don’t have anyone with the speed and athleticism to match up with someone like Tarik Cohen. If the Bears ignore tight end, Trey Burton, again, they should be arrested; Burton has six catches in the last two games, albeit two of them going for touchdowns.
Chicago doesn’t necessarily have to beat New England, because that’s a chore that’s much easier said than done. But they do have to show that they at least belong on the same field. They can’t go out and lay an egg against New England as they did against Miami, especially considering the NFC North is about to get much tighter as the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings start to turn around their respective ships. They have to go out and give the Patriots’ hell and show the rest of the NFL – if not themselves – what they’re capable of. Otherwise, it’ll just be another year of false hope in Chicago.
Pick: New England (-3)
Cincinnati at Kansas City (-6)
Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs are entering this game under circumstances that are far from what they would’ve preferred as the outcome of last weekend’s games. But whether their losses follow them around this weekend, like a really bad hangover after a rough bender, will be one of the main subplots of this matchup.
Kansas City comes into this game after losing what many people referred to as “the game of the year.” As fun as it might’ve been for the spectators, we’re sure that Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and the rest of the Chiefs would’ve traded an entertaining loss for an ugly win any day of the week. A “gentleman’s victory” really doesn’t do them any good, especially if it results in the Chiefs coming into this game with something of an emotional hangover.
The only solace might be that the Cincinnati Bengals come into this game with something of an emotional hangover themselves. As we mentioned last week, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers – in Cincinnati – would’ve given serious credence to the idea that they’re legitimate contenders for the AFC North crown. But, as they’ve had to deal with for the better part of the decade, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown vanquished them when the stakes were at their highest. Having to pick themselves up off the proverbial mat, only to come to Kansas City and play the red-hot Chiefs, isn’t an easy task, especially considering the Bengals are increasingly banged up at many different parts across both sides of the ball.
Once again, it’ll be on the Chiefs to see if they can stop a rather one-dimensional offense, given the fact that the Chiefs couldn’t have stopped a nosebleed last Sunday evening. Cincinnati’s passing game has been solid (though not great), with the duo of AJ Green and Tyler Boyd serving as capable wideouts for Andy Dalton. Those guys will have to step up majorly if the Bengals want to go toe-to-toe with the Chiefs, and they’ll have every opportunity to make plays against what could be the worst set of cornerbacks in the NFL in Kansas City.
Even though the Chiefs have what many consider to be the worst rushing defense in the NFL, it would behoove them to drop as many people into coverage, and dare the Bengals to run the football. The Bengals are in the bottom 10 in the NFL in running the ball on offense, as their top running backs – Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard – continue to deal with nagging injuries.
Either way, it’s tough to see Cincinnati coming into Arrowhead and laying a loss on the Chiefs. Even though Cincinnati is 5-2 against the spread in their last seven games, the Chiefs are a staggering 10-0 against the spread coming into this game. As the saying goes: when you’re at the table, you never step away from a heater; the Chiefs are definitely on a heater right now, even with last week’s loss.
Pick: Kansas City (-6)