Coming up on the halfway mark of the 2018 NFL season, Week 8 features a handful of intriguing matchups between teams with winning records, who are currently jockeying for their place within what’s sure to be a very tight playoff race come November and December. Here are our thoughts and picks for NFL Week 8 Big Games.
Miami at Houston (-7.5)
It’s not always pretty, and the wins are not always enough to make the fans harbor any less skepticism about these two teams, but the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans both have a winning record entering Week 8 of the NFL season (they’re both 4-3), making this a marquee matchup.
Then again, both teams feature offenses that sputter more than they sparkle (with two of the very worst offensive lines and rushing attacks in the NFL) and defenses with interesting individual players, but collective units that don’t always play up to the some of the individual parts.
An interesting subplot in this game comes in the form of “the ghost of quarterbacks past” versus “the ghost of quarterbacks present” for the Houston Texans. Despite his struggles in his second season, not to mention the absolute beating he’s taken behind what is very well the league’s worst offensive line, Deshaun Watson is this team’s quarterback of the future. Of course, Watson was selected last year, in 2017, a year after Houston had thought they found their quarterback of the future. Houston had signed Brock Osweiler to a lucrative free agent deal, luring him away from the Denver Broncos. But between his erratic play – which became a staple of his time there, and since he left – along with reports of friction with head coach Bill O’Brien, Houston not only parted ways with Osweiler just one year into his four-year, $64 million deal, but they actually traded away a second-round pick along with Osweiler, as a way to get a team – the Cleveland Browns, in this case – to absorb Osweiler’s contract.
There does feel like an element of overreaction to this game. Houston started the season with a 0-3 record, but they’re currently riding a four-game winning streak. The question is, did they beat anyone worthwhile in the said streak to earn such a lofty point spread? Two of their wins were against AFC South opponents; anything can happen in intradivision games. The other two games were against the Buffalo Bills – who might have the worst offense in the NFL, by a considerable margin – and against the Dallas Cowboys, who might be one of the worst-coached teams in the league.
The Texans don’t control who’s on the schedule and how those teams’ fare, but it does make you consider whether Houston should really be favored by more than a touchdown in this game. Prior to beating Jacksonville last week, Houston’s average margin of victory was less than five points. The Texans are 2-5 against the spread this season and 2-8 over their last ten regular season games dating back to last season.
In this scenario, it’s probably just safe to take the points. But like many other Thursday night games to which we’ve been subjected since it officially became a thing, expect a lot of mediocre football in this game. The rare reason for watching this game might be to enjoy the performance of DeAndre Hopkins, who’s quietly emerged as perhaps the top wide receiver in the NFL this year.
Pick: Miami (+7.5)
Philadelphia (-3) vs. Jacksonville
Before the 2018 season started, this game looked like it could’ve been one of the highlight matchups of the year.
But while one team (the Philadelphia Eagles) looks like they’re trying to clean up the mistakes that plagued them in the early part of the season, the other team (the Jacksonville Jaguars) looks like they’re developing a new – and alarming – set of bad habits.
It’s one thing for the Jaguars to lose winnable games and shoot themselves in the foot, but it’s an entirely different thing when you’re getting beaten because you no longer know who you are. That’s the problem the Jaguars face right now.
Under personnel czar Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars were built with an “old school” blueprint in mind: a powerful running team that controls the clock on offense, and a ferocious defense – buoyed by a world-class defensive line – that suffocates opposing offenses.
Yet the dirty secret in Jacksonville is that, since late last year, the team has been putting more and more faith in quarterback Blake Bortles to throw the football, which is about as safe as playing Russian Roulette. It doesn’t help that running back Leonard Fournette has effectively been out for all of this season with a nagging hamstring injury, and starting left tackle Cam Robinson was lost for the year due to an injury as well. But it’s hard to feel sorry for what’s happening to the Jaguars when the majority of the damage is self-inflicted, courtesy of Bortles.
On the other side of the ball, the team that put so much pressure on the NFL last year that they were eventually nicknamed “Sacksonville” (they had 55 sacks in 2017 — good for 2nd in the NFL) is currently tied for 20th in the NFL in sacks, and doesn’t have a single one of their pass-rushing defensive linemen ranked in the top 20 in the NFL in sacks (Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue have four apiece; by comparison, Aaron Donald had four sacks on Sunday alone).
The Jaguars still have the #1 pass defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per game, but the advanced stats — which put them closer to the lower part of the top 10 in the NFL — paint a more telling story. What’s even a more telling story is the fact that a team with this much invested in its defensive line allows the 8th-most rushing yards per game to opponents.
This is a critical game for Jacksonville, who feels like they’re one more ugly loss away from a real mutiny against Bortles. But a win is not going to come easy against a team featuring Carson Wentz, who’s starting to show more and more flashes of his MVP-caliber play last year, evidenced by his 30 of 37 for 310 yards and two touchdowns stat line in Philadelphia’s loss to Carolina last week.
Pick: Philadelphia (-3)
Baltimore at Carolina (-2)
The Baltimore Ravens, who almost always play well at home (the Ravens are 13-6 at home since the start of the 2016 season), were home favorites last week, and they lost.
The Carolina Panthers, who’ve generally been a below-average team on the road (they’re 8-11 in away games since the start of 2016), were five-point underdogs on the road last week, against the defending Super Bowl champions no less, and they won.
That probably explains why the line opened for this game and a pure “pick‘em,” with the sportsbooks basically allowing the betting market to decide what the line should be in this game.
Clearly, after Carolina’s win over Philadelphia last Sunday, the betting public is much more bullish on them. You can’t deny that the Panthers scoring 21 fourth-quarter points, and coming back to beat the Eagles, was an impressive feat. But there’s also something to the fact that Carolina has now dug itself in a hole in each of the last two games, only to climb their way out in the fourth quarter; in the last two games, Carolina has scored 10 total points in the first three quarters, but have scored 28 total points in the fourth quarter of both games.
The Panthers’ comebacks were largely against secondaries that were banged up and underperforming as well – Washington two weekends ago, and Philadelphia last week. They’re not going to see that a third time in a row when they play Baltimore. The Ravens are allowing the second-fewest passing yards per game in the NFL (180), and the second-lowest passer rating (78.2) against the quarterbacks they’ve faced this year. That’s not even mentioning the NFL-high 27 sacks they’ve accumulated, even if the number is inflated after their 11-sack performance against the Tennessee Titans two Sunday’s ago.
Baltimore is an intriguing team in their own right. While they’ve lost two of their last three games, one of the two losses came in an overtime slugfest, and the other game would’ve been tied at the end of regulation had it not been for Justin Tucker missing his first extra point in hundreds of attempts. Instead, the Ravens are now 4-3, sitting in third place in the AFC North. But, they’re still only a game out of the division lead, with rematches against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals coming up before Thanksgiving.
At first, this might feel like another game that feels like a market over-reaction to current events. Carolina has won two of their last three games, while Baltimore is on the opposite end of that. Carolina won last week, Baltimore didn’t. But the simple truth might be that these two teams are both much better at home than they are on the road. With Carolina returning home, these circumstances favor them. And with a line that’s less than a field goal, a narrow win by the Panthers still favors bettors.
In what is likely to be a close game, go ahead and favor the home team, and pick the Panthers.
Pick: Carolina (-2)
Green Bay at Los Angeles (-9)
The greatest amusement park in the world might be 500 miles Southeast of Green Bay, Wisconsin, but fans of the Green Bay Packers have to feel like they’ve been riding a roller coaster all season long.
Take a look at what the Packers’ season has been to date. They overcame a 20-point deficit in the season opener to beat the Chicago Bears. They had a 97.3% win probability with two minutes left in the game against Minnesota, only to watch that game go into overtime and barely overcome two critical misses from Minnesota’s kicker to have that game end in a tie. They were thoroughly outplayed by the Washington Redskins. They then throttled the overmatched Buffalo Bills, only to get throttled the following week by the Detroit Lions. Finally, they won a shootout game against a San Francisco team that got blown out by 29 points this past Sunday, against the Packers’ opponent this upcoming Sunday.
So, again, what are we supposed to make of this Green Bay team? It just seems like another year of Aaron Rodgers playing at a transcendent level, overcoming the increasingly dubious offensive game plans of head coach Mike McCarthy, and having to overcompensate for a talent-laden but underperforming defensive group. NFL fans will tell you that Tom Brady is the greatest of all time, and Patrick Mahomes is the next great quarterback in the NFL, but the truth is that Rodgers’ greatness is defined by him doing more with less than any other great quarterback in the NFL.
Rodgers has to look at the offense that the opposing quarterback and fellow Cal Bear – Jared Goff – can drive, and wonder what could’ve been. There have been jokes in the NFL community that Rodgers or Brady would throw for 9,000 yards in the Los Angeles Rams’ offense, and while that number is far-fetched, there’s a huge kernel of truth in such a statement. What head coach Sean McVay is orchestrating with the Rams is nothing short of offensive wizardry. They’ve scored 33 or more points in six of their seven games. They’re on pace to score over 537 points, which would be the ninth-highest point total in NFL history, and a higher point total than the 1999 St. Louis Rams – the original “Greatest Show on Turf.”
While Goff has fallen off from his race against Patrick Mahomes for the league-leader in touchdown passes, running back, Todd Gurley is currently on pace to score 32 combined touchdowns this year, which would break the single-season touchdown record set by LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.
While it’s worth noting that the Rams’ defense was giving up over 26 points per game in the four games prior to Los Angeles’ blowout win against San Francisco last week, it’s hard to see the undermanned – and under-coached – Packers coming in and being able to go toe-to-toe with the Rams offense for 60 minutes. Even with this lofty spread, the Rams are more than capable of covering.
Pick: Los Angeles (-9)
New Orleans (-1) at Minnesota
If you’re looking for a real situation in which the sportsbooks weren’t sure which way this game would go, take a look at what happened to the line in this New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings matchup.
Seemingly bullish on Minnesota making short work of the New York Jets last week, the lines opened with the Vikings being two-point favorites in this Sunday evening matchup. But less than 48 hours later, there was so much money being pushed in the direction of the Saints – with bettors apparently just as bullish on New Orleans’ holding on to beat Baltimore last Sunday – that the line swung all the way from Minnesota being favored to New Orleans actually being one-point road favorites in this game. The thought of a Minnesota team, whom many still consider being a legitimate Super Bowl contender, being home underdogs is almost ridiculous.
Then again, the people laying money down on New Orleans are probably very high on the matchup of Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing offense (#6 in passing yards per game) going against the Minnesota passing defense (#16 in yards per game allowed right now, which is bafflingly-bad considering how much talent the Vikings have in this secondary).
The beauty of the New Orleans offense is that they have more activities than a fancy preschool. They can employ a power running game with Mark Ingram. They can spread the field and do more of a speed-based rushing attack with Alvin Kamara, or move him around the formation and have him run routes to create matchup problems. Wide receiver Michael Thomas has emerged as one of the five-to-seven best players at his position. Even with the season-ending injury to wide receiver Ted Ginn, New Orleans can unleash Tre’Quan Smith, their third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. And no matter which way New Orleans chooses to attack you, they’re anchored by one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
What makes this game surprisingly intriguing is the fact that it could very well be a shootout. For all of Brees’ prolific stats this year, quarterback Kirk Cousins has come to Minnesota and orchestrated an air show of his own. How many people realize that Adam Thielen currently leads the NFL in receiving yards (822 through seven games) averaging over 117 yards per game? He’s currently riding a streak of eight-straight games with more than 100 yards receiving (dating back to last season), which is the second-longest in NFL history. If he does so again this Sunday against New Orleans, he’ll tie Calvin Johnson for the longest such streak in NFL history.
While New Orleans’ passing defense was pretty bad to start the season, they’re starting to show a level of comfort as this season progresses. It might not be enough to limit with the Vikings do on offense, but it might be just enough to slow them down in a way that Brees and company can put up enough points to escape with their second-straight road win.
Pick: New Orleans (-1)