As a prelude to the New England Patriots week five game at Dallas, there are a pair of very interesting early NFL games on Sunday. On FOX the Seattle Seahawks travel to Cincinnati to battle the 4-0 Bengals, and on CBS the Green Bay Packers host the St. Louis Rams. After playing in London last week both the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets are off with a bye. The only other AFC East team playing this weekend is Buffalo; the Bills travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans.
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1-3 Jacksonville Jaguars at 1-3 Tampa Bay Bucs; early game on CBS; Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots
Buccaneers -3; over/under 42; Jaguars +130, Buccaneers -150
There are a couple of situations that in the name of fairness should be prohibited by NFL schedule makers. One is to make a team go on the road after playing Monday night, as it makes an already short week one day shorter for bodies to recover and for coaches and players to prepare. The other is to schedule teams to play on the road in three consecutive weeks; that’s asking too much for a team and it has a tendency to create some poor quality play, leading to noncompetitive games.
The Jaguars are in the latter scenario,coming off a blowout loss at New England and then a demoralizing loss in overtime at Indianapolis where kicker Jason Myers missed a pair of long (53, 48 yards) field goals late that would have won the game. In Myers’ defense neither of those were gimmes, even playing indoors; it’s nothing like the problems Tampa Bay has had kicking. Kyle Brindza was dumped after making just six of twelve field goal attempts, plus missing two extra points in the first four games; the Bucs re-signed veteran Connor Barth to take his place.
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston has been horrible so far. The rookie is prone to staring down receivers, throwing into coverage rather than looking for his second option and waiting too long to throw the ball. Winston has completed less than 55% of his passes (33rd in the NFL); his touchdown-to-interception ratio (6:7) is the second worst in the NFL and his 71.2 passer rating ranks 32nd. While Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles has hardly been lighting it up, he is at least a better option than Winston at this point. Former Patriot Logan Mankins left practice Wednesday and as of Saturday he is listed as questionable, saying that he is not sure if he can play for the Bucs. The Jags have a decent pass rush and should be able to force Winston (who would only be a junior if he had stayed at FSU) into some mistakes; their rush defense (league best 3.1 yards per carry) has been very good, which could place Winston and the Bucs in difficult third down situations. One area of concern though is Paul Posluszny, the middle linebacker who is the heart and soul of the Jacksonville defense; Poz has not practiced all week due to an ankle injury suffered in the game at Indy. Although he is listed as questionable, reportedly this is a high ankle sprain. If that is indeed the case, then he’s not going to be able to play Sunday; that would be a major setback for the Jaguars.
On the other side of the ball, keep an eye on Jacksonville running back T.J. Yeldon. The rookie ran for 105 yards on 22 carries last week, and the Tampa Bay rush defense (4.0 yards per carry, 137 yards per game) is average at best. If the Jaguars can establish the run that will open things up for receivers Allen Hurns (11 receptions for 116 yards and a TD last week) and Allen Robinson (22 yards per catch, 330 yards receiving, 2 TD this year).
Prediction: Jaguars 21, Buccaneers 20
Jaguars +3; under 42: Jaguars +130
2-2 Buffalo Bills at 1-2 Tennessee Titans; early game on CBS; Andrew Catalon, Steve Beuerlein
Bills -1; over/under 42; Bills -115, Titans -105
Second overall pick Marcus Mariota has far outplayed Jameis Winston thus far. Mariota has thrown eight touchdowns against only two picks, and his 110.3 passer rating is fifth-best in the NFL. However, second round pick Bishop Sankey has not produced. In the last two games Sankey has rushed for only 52 yards at 3.0 yards per carry – and that was against the Browns and Colts. The Titans have given up 63 points and opponents gained 652 yards in those last two games. Tennessee has given up twelve sacks through just three games; their porous offensive line could be just what the Buffalo defense needs to rejuvenate itself.
The Bills led the NFL with 54 sacks last year, but through four games their over-hyped defense has produced just seven sacks. Meanwhile the propensity to shoot itself in the foot with stupid, undisciplined penalties (47 for 428 yards, by far the most in the NFL) has been Buffalo’s downfall so far. The team continually either take points off the board for the offense or gifts opponents with great field position an extra opportunities. Most astounding (though not surprising) is that head coach Rex Ryan failed to see this as a problem, and instead praising his team for their ‘fight’ when asked about the 17 penalties for 135 yards in last week’s upset loss to the Giants. Interestingly the tough-guy, bully mentality that Ryan attempts to instill did not showcase itself on the game-losing play, when the Bills missed three tackles and Giant running back Rashad Jennings body slammed Bills’ defender Bacarri Rambo with a vicious stiff arm.
Buffalo will be without both LeSean McCoy as well as Karlos Williams this week. That means Anthony Dixon will get his second career start at running back, and will be backed up by former Patriot practice squad member Cierre Wood and former Colt Dan Herron, who was just signed as a street free agent this week. Teams that have followed New England’s defensive blueprint of spreading four pass rushers, containing the edge and keeping Tyrod Taylor in the pocket have had success.
Prediction: Titans 20, Bills 17
Titans +1; under 42 (one unit); Titans -105
1-3 Cleveland Browns at 1-3 Baltimore Ravens; early game on CBS; Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
Ravens -7; over/under 43; Browns +250, Ravens -300
Here we have a perennial playoff team playing at home with ten days rest, against a perennial cellar dweller that they have dominated (13-1 straight up since 2008) in recent history. I realize that Baltimore could be 4-0, but they could even more easily be 0-4 as well. Even though they have had extra time to prepare, I believe that the Ravens will have a bit of a letdown after playing their arch rivals (Pittsburgh) last week, and will look past the Browns. That won’t be enough for Cleveland to win though – not with a defense that ranks last in yardage (406 yards per game), 21st in scoring (25.5 points per game), and is 31st with 6.3 yards allowed per play.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Browns 23
Browns +7; over 43; Ravens -300
2-2 Washington Redskins at 4-0 Atlanta Falcons; early game on FOX; Chris Myers, Ronde Barber
Falcons -7; over/under 48; Skins +250, Falcons -300
Before the season began I felt Washington was the worst team in the NFL, but they are one play away from being 3-1 and in first place in the NFC East. While Atlanta may not be as good as other 4-0 teams, they are much healthier than they were last year and their offensive line is vastly improved. Give Matt Ryan time to find Julio Jones (NFL-best 120 yards receiving per game, and NFL-best yards after catch). Focus too much on Jones and there is Leonard Hankerson (six receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown last week), who would love to have a big game against his former team who did not attempt to re-sign him last off-season. Washington’s secondary has not looked good since DeAngelo Hall was lost due to a toe injury; Chris Culliver has been burnt repeatedly, but he is still better than either Bashaud Breeland or Will Blackmon. The one hope for the Skins is to play keep-away like they did in week one against Miami. The Falcons are allowing 4.4 yards per rush, and Washington’s trio of running backs (Alred Morris, Matt Jones, Chris Thompson) are capable of exploiting that deficiency. That may be enough to keep it close, but I can’t see the Washington defense doing enough against this high-powered Atlanta offense to win this game.
Prediction: Falcons 30, Skins 24
Skins +7; over 48; Falcons -300
1-3 Chicago Bears at 1-3 Kansas City Chiefs; early game on FOX; Sam Rosen, John Lynch
Chiefs -9½; over/under 45; Bears +350, Chiefs -450
At first glance a one-win Kansas City team that has lost three straight being favored by this much may not make sense, but consider the opponents: the Chiefs’ losses were against teams with a combined record of 12-0, and three of their first four games have been on the road. Chicago has not played well on the road: they lost 26-0 in their only away game this year, and their last seven road losses have been by an average of more than 23 points per game. While all that points to a win for the Chiefs, that line is too tempting to not take the underdog plus all those points – even though WR Alshon Jeffery will apparently miss his fourth straight game due to a strained hamstring.
Prediction: Chiefs 27, Bears 20
Bears +9½ (one unit); over 45; Chiefs -450
1-3 New Orleans Saints at 1-3 Philadelphia Eagles; early game on FOX; Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis
Eagles -5; over/under 49; Saints +190, Eagles -230
Philadelphia has underwhelmed this year, with a sputtering offense resulting in the Eagle defense to be on the field for far too much time every week. Last week Philly’s D was on the field for 41:08, and were out of gas at the end when Washington went on a 90-yard game-winning touchdown drive. Philadelphia’s offensive line has been ineffective, rendering a decent group of running backs (DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles) useless. While the focus in New Orleans has been the slide of the offense in the post-Jimmy Graham era, the defense hasn’t been helping out either. The Saints are one of three teams to yet intercept a pass, and there are only two teams with fewer takeaways (3). The New Orleans defense is allowing an NFL-worst 6.5 yards per play on top of that.
Prediction: Eagles 23, Saints 21
Saints +5; under 49; Saints +190
2-2 St. Louis Rams at 4-0 Green Bay Packers; early game cross-flexed to CBS; Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
Packers -10; over/under 46; Rams +350, Packers -450
In the recent past opponents have had no respect for the Ram running game, because the St. Louis running backs have been mediocre ever since Steven Jackson departed as a free agent following the 2012 season. The Rams now have Todd Gurley, who rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 7.7 yards per carry against a solid Arizona defense last week. His presence makes defending against St. Louis a much more difficult task than it has been for quite a while, despite being no more than average at quarterback (Nick Foles), out wide (Kenny Britt), or in the slot (Tavon Austin).
The Rams have not only enough starting talent, but also quality depth in their defensive front seven to keep their players fresh. St. Louis has 17 sacks this year, and can be productive enough to force some punts, even against as good an offense as you will find in the NFL. This defense, plus the addition of Gurley to lessen the need for Foles to carry the Ram offense should make this a closer game than many are expecting it to be.
Prediction: Packers 27, Rams 20
Rams +10; over 46; Packers -450
2-2 Seattle Seahawks at 4-0 Cincinnati Bengals; early game on FOX; Joe Buck, Troy Aikman
Bengals -2½; over/under 43½; Seahawks +145, Bengals -165
As we saw last week against Detroit, the Seattle offensive line has suddenly become atrocious; they have allowed 18 sacks in just four games, even though they have the ninth fewest pass attempts per game. The loss of center Max Unger has been far more of an obstacle than expected, and the addition of Jimmy Graham in that trade has yet to yield positive results. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has been terrific through the first four games. Dalton has thrown nine touchdowns with only one interception, completing 67% of his passes and averaging 297 yards passing per game. Dalton’s passer rating of 123.0 is second in the NFL to Aaron Rodgers, and with another victory the Bengals will be 5-0 for the first time in 27 years. Cincy used to be a ‘good-defense, average offense’, but to go along with WR A.J. Green (417 yards receiving) the Bengals now have TE Tyler Eifert (24 receptions, 3 TD) and the thunder and lightning duo of 235 pound Jeremy Hill (5 touchdowns) and 5’9″ Giovanni Bernard (372 yards from scrimmage). As mentioned in the Jags-Bucs preview, one thing I hate to see on the schedule for a team is a road game for a team that played Monday night as it shortens the time to recover and prepare for the next opponent. Seattle is not only in that position, but also having to deal with crossing three time zones to play an early game.
Prediction: Bengals 20, Seahawks 13
Bengals -2½; under 43½ (two units); Bengals -165
3-1 Arizona Cardinals at 0-4 Detroit Lions; late game on FOX; Justin Kutcher, Daryl Johnston
Cardinals -3; over/under 45; Cardinals -150, Lions +130
Both teams are looking to bounce back from week four losses. Detroit was robbed by an incorrect call in the waning moments at Seattle on Monday, while the Arizona bandwagon was brought back to reality in a home loss to the Rams. St. Louis was very effective in pressuring Carson Palmer last week, bringing a linebacker or safety from a variety of angles and looks to confuse the Arizona pass protection. Detroit will need to do something similar; although they don’t have the defensive talent level of the Rams, they will have the benefit of playing at home in a loud dome. Detroit DE Ziggy Ansah had a great game in Seattle; Arizona left tackle Jared Veldheer has not played well the last couple of weeks and will need help with Ansah. In addition Detroit gets linebacker DeAndre Levy back for the first time this season, after dealing with a hip injury.
Arizona gets running back Andre Ellington back for the first time since a week one knee injury, but his playing time will likely be limited with most of the snaps going to Chris Johnson and David Johnson. Palmer has been very effective this season (10 TD, 3 INT, 289 yards passing per game), but this will be a good test for him and the Arizona offense; the first three games for the Cardinals were against weak defenses (Saints, Bears, 49ers). Arizona is a much more complete and balanced team; Detroit’s problems on offense – the Lions rank 29th with 16.5 points per game and 4.9 yards per play – will likely send them to their fifth defeat of the season.
Prediction: Cardinals 24, Lions 17
Cardinals -3 (two units); under 45 (one unit); Cardinals -150
3-0 New England Patriots at 2-2 Dallas Cowboys; late game on CBS; Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Patriots -9½; over/under 49½; Patriots -440, Cowboys +360
The Patriots are dead last in the NFL with 4.9 yards per rush allowed. While some of that can be attributed to the scheme of the week one game when the Pats dared Pittsburgh to beat them because of the rushing game while focusing on defending against Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, that is still a disconcerting number. Bill Belichick will game plan to stop the Dallas running attack and force Brandon Weeden to carry the offense; should that happen the Patriots will win by a large margin. The other half of that equation has to do with the New England offense; if the Pats jump out to a decent lead then Dallas may be forced to throw the ball, regardless of how well they are running. The Cowboys do get DE Greg Hardy and LB Rolando McClain back from four-game suspensions to bolster their defense this week; that may be enough to keep this game close but the Patriots should still win to go 5-0. A garbage time touchdown could make the final score closer than the game actually will be.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Cowboys 24
Cowboys +9½; over 49½; Cowboys +360
4-0 Denver Broncos at 2-2 Oakland Raiders; late game on CBS; Greg Gumbel, Trent Green
Broncos -4½; over/under 43½; Broncos -220, Raiders +180
To me this is a really difficult game to handicap. On one hand Denver has looked less than stellar so far this season, with Peyton Manning losing some zip on his passes and the Bronco running game being non-existent until last week. On the other hand some of that can be attributed to decent competition (Ravens, Chiefs, Vikings and Lions), and there are questions as to how good Oakland is. The Raiders have received a bit of pub with two wins thus far, but they were fortunate to beat Baltimore at home and beating Cleveland isn’t saying much – and then they lost to the previously winless Bears. Oakland is giving up 27 points per game despite some mediocre competition; that defense is enough to cure Denver’s offensive woes.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Raiders 20
Broncos -4½; over 43½; Raiders +180
1-3 San Francisco 49ers at 2-2 New York Giants; Sunday night game on NBC; Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth
Giants -7; over/under 43; Niners +250, Giants -300
The Niners rank last in scoring (12 points per game), last with 4.7 yards per play, 30th with 17.5 first downs per game, last with 159 yards passing per game, and are 31st with 289 yards of offense per game. That means the Giants’ offense with Eli Manning (7 TD, 1 INT) will be out on the field for a long time, slinging it to Odell Beckham (24 receptions, 307 yards). The New York running back by committee seems to be quietly effective as well, with Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and former Patriot Shane Vereen combining for 545 yards from scrimmage through four games.
Prediction: Giants 27, Niners 13
Giants -7 (four units); over 43; Giants -300 (one unit)
2-2 Pittsburgh Steelers at 2-2 San Diego Chargers; Monday night game on ESPN; Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden
Chargers -3½; over/under 45½; Steelers +155, Chargers -175
The San Diego offensive line is still in shambles – due to injuries they have yet to be able to start the same five players twice this season, and have already placed two o-linemen on injured reserve – but they do get some good news with TE Antonio Gates getting back on the field after serving a four-game suspension. San Diego has allowed at least 24 points in every game this season, but between Todd Haley‘s conservative play calling and no Ben Roethlisberger, the Chargers are in a good position to win this game. Pittsburgh has a tendency to let down following a game against the Ravens, and they are 2-7 in west coast games in the Mike Tomlin era.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Steelers 24
Steelers +3½; over 45½; Steelers +155
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