Thursday, September 24, 2009

Week 3 NFL Picks: Quitting Time

By this point in the NFL season, despite all evidence to the contrary, we don't really know who is going to make the playoffs. Injuries and ill luck can still take down even the strongest team, and it's rare that teams go wire to wire. There are some 2-0 teams that aren't going to the playoffs (I'm looking at you, Denver), and there very well may be an 0-2 team that qualifies (Tennessee might be the best of that lot).

But we are very, very aware of who the terrible teams are. Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland and perhaps Jacksonville and Tampa Bay are a game away from all hope being extinguished, but realistically, there's no odds that you could give me that would make me take the under bet of losses for that group at 50. And when you look at the historic numbers, no team comes back from an 0-3 hole, let alone teams that have looked as bad as they have. Finally, now that Detroit has shown us all what's possible with last year's imperfection, maybe we even have someone willing to mail it in for the entire year.

A man can dream. And Lions Fan can feel marginalized even in their suffering, since they won't even have The Time Without Any Wins At All to themselves...

Washington at DETROIT (+6)

I missed this on Sunday, but it should be noted that Washington coach and super-genius Jim Zorn chose to go for it on fourth down deep in Ram territory while holding a 9-7 lead last week, only to fail and have his team get a defensive stop to secure the win. It was such a bad decision that even the paid mouth jobbers (in the guise of franchise legend and voice Sonny Jurgenson) threw the team under the bus, much in the same way that Tony Dorsett did to Tony Romo in Dallas. You've got a special franchise when wins cause this much anguish.

That, and the fact that the team is going to waste a good defense with the least explosive offense outside of Cleveland... and Skins Fan? That defense won't be very good for very long, because Albert Haynesworth can't stay healthy and will soon realize that he's gonna get paid even if he doesn't try super hard, and that the world will little note nor long remember who tried and who didn't for a fourth-place team.

Maybe your next coach will be better, if only because your crazy shrunken Scientologist owner has to give up eventually and realize that someone else has to be better at this than he is. Then again, maybe I'm just the Evil Lord Xenu. It's amazing how often you run into me, when you are Daniel Snyder.

For the Lions, they spent another week being praised like Special Olympians for taking a lead and sacking His Favreness, but eventually the Viking defense created turnovers and Adrian Peterson created touchdowns. (I have one roto league in which I'm 2-0, mostly because I had the keen insight to take AP with the first pick. Auctions, people. Auctions.) I think this is the week that Calvin Johnson's growing rapport with Matthew Stafford brings multiple touchdowns, and that Jason Campbell really shows how much the Skins want a quarterback controversy to go with the rest of their circus. Besides, at some point, Detroit's got to win a game. Maybe not more than one, but it's a start.

Lions 24, Redskins 16

GREEN BAY (+7) at St. Louis

If He Who Shall Not Be Ignored was still in Wisconsin and starting, do you think there would be a QB controversy by now? The team would still have the promising Aaron Rodgers on the bench, would still have missed the playoffs last year due to a surprisingly pliant defense and subpar offensive line, and would still be dealing with too many turnovers to overcome. The only difference now is that since Rodgers has had the good sense to provide fantasy football value and the world has slowly -- very slowly -- started to think about football beyond intelligent design deus ex machina moments of Grit, Heart, Determination and Being A Winner. So there's no hue and cry to try someone else behind center (and, well, also they don't really have a #2 that excites anyone).

Then again, it'd help if Rodgers himself would start doing more to win games late, especially against historically terrible teams like the Bengals. Last week's loss really wasn't the man's fault, but still sent millions of suicide pool pickers to the sidelines in hatred, and being quarterback means you get inordinate blame and credit. Rodgers would probably be a better field general if he weren't spry; just as sports highlight shows has hurt basketball by making everyone disdain the mid-range game, quarterbacks are all now trying for their Big Ben / Eli Manning moment of prolonging the play and Being The Superhero. For a guy like Rodgers, who combines some good athleticism with an injury history, this way lies madness; especially since the Packers wideouts get open more by route and size than speed and leaping ability.

All of that, by the way, won't matter a fig in St. Louis, where the Rams are 0-2 after two DOA road "efforts", and QB Marc Bulger has to look at increasingly dusty playing cards to find a year when he wasn't utterly horrible. I know his offensive line are turnstiles, his wideouts are the worst in the league, and his defense rarely gives him a short field, but the fish stinks from the head down. And Bulger's interest in grabbing some ground against any kind of pass rush is unmatched in the NFL since Bobby Hoying, plus he has zero athleticism to avoid the rush. Stephen Jackson will have numbers against a Packers team that got exposed by the immortal Cedric Benson at home, but that will only matter for a little while.

Packers 31, Rams 20

SAN FRANCISCO at Minnesota (-7)

Can the Niners seize control of their division with an underdog win in Minnesota against the Love Boaters? I'm going to give them the full throated FTT Kiss Of Gambling Death by getting away from my losing disrespect. They just might be the best team in the NFC West, and one more win this week will get them to Intriguing Cinderella status. And if they ever manage to get Michael Crabtree signed, they'd be downright dangerous in attracting stupid money to their cause, not that I'm really expecting anything on that front. I suspect at this point that Coach Mike Singletary wants Crabtree around just to yell at him.

These are two surprisingly similar team. Both have struggled to fill the QB position, and finally thrown up their hands and gone for a journeyman that needs to be reined into a short passing game to avoid crippling mistakes. They both depend on their star running back in a non-committee situation for nearly all positive value over the mean. They both have head coaches that, despite reasonable won-loss records, people feel unsure about, for fairly good reasons (Tarvaris Jackson, Casual Nudity and Press Conference Buffoonery). And they both have to feel good about their defenses after two weeks of effective play. Niners LB Patrick Willis is the best player at his position that not enough people now about, and the Williams Wall remains the source of good fun in the land of a thousand lakes and 45 billion mosquitoes.

In most weeks, the difference between Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore, along with the home dome advantage, would be enough. But not in September, and not in a game where the defense is going to make His Favreness throw the ball more than five yards at a time. This week is when the Sage Rosenfels whispers start.

Niners 24, Vikings 17

Atlanta at NEW ENGLAND (-4)

Has the window closed on the Patriot Empire? Last week's de-pantsing at the hands of the new bully Jets had all of the feel of An Ending, with Dreamboat Brady reduced to back foot hot read desperation to spent fourth receivers (seriously, Patriot Fan is pining for the cut Greg Lewis, rather than the fossilized Joey Galloway, which if just a Sammich of Sadness on every level), and the ineffective committee running attack is cutting no ice. Remember that if not for a gift collapse from the Bills, the Patriots could be a first class fire drill right now, with massive What's Wrong media jobs and the collective Woe Is Us whine job that only Massholes can really express. (That's because they are so, so literate.) Dreamboat has been mostly tentative and terrorized, and the defense contains much more than they crush. It is, right now, a finesse team that's just a hair off, a fine sports car with a nasty engine clank. They'll be fine in time, assuming health and Belichick's continued pact with Satan, but right now, things aren't right.

This week, they get the homecoming Matt Ryan, the rampaging Tony Gonzalez, a physical Michael Turner and the rest of the 2-0 Falcons that bear a reasonable resemblance to those mean green people that made last week so unpleasant. The difference, of course, is that the game is at home, and the Falcons aren't bringing anywhere near the kind of defensive wood that New York does. Which would point us in the direction of Shootout, but I'm not seeing the team's offensive lines being able to keep their QB clean long enough for that to happen. If Patriots coach Bill Belichick wants to start seeming like a genius again, he'd start building an identity around his running game, but this week, he won't need it.

I'm going with the home team Patriots, but I'd really like to be wrong. The idea of a sub .500 year for Belichick and a massive crisis of faith in Masshole Nation is just fantastic, but I just don't think the Falcons have it in them to win a nice to win game against a near desperate home club with pedigree.

Plus, well, God just doesn't love us that much.

Prove me wrong, Lord and Dirty Birds...

Patriots 26, Falcons 20

TENNESSEE at New York Jets (-3)

Last call time for last year's top seed in the AFC, and they get a road game against the new squash artists. Are the Jets ready for front-runner status and full-throated media attention? No, and here's why. In the first two weeks, the team has gone against teams with clear #1 receivers, and Darrelle Revis (note previous picks columns for my manlove for the man; he's the new Nnamdi Asomugha, only better, because I don't have to spell-check his name) has made Andre Johnson and Randy Moss completely invisible, and Matt Schaub and Tom Brady completely irrelevant. This week, who does Revis shadow? Justin Gage or Kenny Britt, with Kerry Collins under center facing a blitz-happy defense. It's like having a pair of aces against low hole cards, and it's not as if Collins has never faced a blitz before. The Jets are going to get cracked here.

The Titans will run the ball even when it doesn't work, because this game for them will be all about avoiding the Collins TAInt. Eventually, even against a defense with Kris Jenkins, that will work, because Chris Johnson might be the best home run hitter in the business right now, and even LenDale White is right when you give it to him 15 to 20 times a game. Teams don't go to the penthouse this quickly, and 13 win teams don't fall apart this fast. And finally, there's that whole Need vs. Want thing going on here, with the road team heavily on the side of Need. Bet the under on points, and the over on punts.

Titans 16, Jets 13

Kansas City at PHILADELPHIA (NL)

Successful head coaches in the NFL are, on the whole, productively stubborn managers. They push their men to play in a certain way, to make certain sacrifices, and to maintain a certain standard.

The downside of this is that they can lack a certain flexibility. When Andy Reid is missing QB Donovan McNabb, very little is scaled back or not tried; there is a system, dammit, and the quarterback will conform to it. It doesn't matter that the system takes years of in-game action to master, or that very few people on the planet have McNabb's talent; Andy will simply Coach Harder, and the quarterback will do the job.

In the long run, this is a good thing. It means that the Eagles remain dangerous to opponents even with replacement-level talent, and that they won't hold on to McNabb for a return of the glory years when he's in his late 30s. They've also won more than you'd expect them to when Number Five is unavailable, and been able to move backup quarterbacks for value.

But in the short run, it is maddening, especially if you have an interest in keeping a speed defense off the freaking field. (It's also the same reason why the man refuses to call running plays as something more than an amusing side project.)

This week against Kansas City, Kevin Kolb will chuck it 40+ times despite rampant Wildcattery from Michael Vick and others. The Eagles will fail to exercise proper Ball Security, keeping the road team in the game well into the second half. And then the defense will make a play or two, a quick strike will put the game into the comfortable zone, and the stadium will exhale, and try to forget that the whole scary drama could have been avoided with a simpler game plan, and a more physical defense.

(Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the Chiefs are one of the six worst teams in football, and liable to lose this game on their own turnovers.)

Eagles 34, Chiefs 17

NY GIANTS (-7) at Tampa Bay

Eli Manning's breakout month continues, as the quietly terrible Bucs pass defense (when Trent Edwards and the Bills rack up yards, You Are Officially Terrible) play host to the emerging Mario Manningham / Steve Smith combo that are making Giants Fan forget that Tumor guy and the idiot jailbird that shot himself. If you drafted Brandon Jacobs in your roto league, you can feel good about your dreams of a 20-TD year, because the man's going to have opportunities, at least until the weather turns windy and Eli's noodle arm fails to get it done. You'd think that for the money they are paying him, the man could actually throw the ball with velocity.

Tampa's setting up to have one of those terrible teams that fantasy players love, since the defense gives up pinball numbers and the offense will play against prevent defenses for two quarters a game on the average. Get your Aaron Brooks-esque juice from Byron Leftwich while you can, people, because once it becomes obvious to the management that 10+ losses are coming their way, there's going to be a rush to judgment on rookie first-round QB Josh Freeman, who will be worse than Leftwich in the short run, and maybe even the long. Good thing the team is going retro with their jerseys this year, just to make sure the carpet matches the drapes.

Giants 34, Bucs 23

Cleveland at BALTIMORE (-13.5)

I keep forgetting to play "Eliminator" or "Suicide" pools, so I'll make the retroactive picks of Week 1, New England (phew!) and Week 2, Washington (I'm so daring!). Which means that you should totally trust me and the Ravens in this matchup, which actually has elements of worry about it. After all, Cleveland is trying to avoid the 0-3 death sentence, Baltimore is coming off a tight West Coast win, and the team's parentage and ancestry means that there's enough hate in the stands to spill over onto the field.

But all of that is overthinking the following, incontrovertible point: Brady Quinn is going to play quarterback for a road team that's facing the Baltimore defense, and second year QB Joe Flacco is showing signs of breakout. Sometimes, it's just that easy, and if there were good odds on the Raven defense outscoring the Cleveland offense this week, I'd think about that bet. Hard.

Ravens 27, Browns 6

Jacksonville at HOUSTON (-4)

The yo-yo Texans get the big home number and love against the reeling Jaguars, who are one more loss away from making all of the Maurice Jones-Drew owners tear something out of their scalp. The Jaguars have been dumb all over and a little ugly on the side, and looking very similar to their cross-state Buccaneer brethren as the source of cheap QB numbers from a chuck and duck guy who will play from behind from now until January. Which is hard to do, considering that the Jag WR corps is the very late model Torry Holt, a hyphenated injury-prone wonder in Mike Sims-Walker, a TE who was a drop machine last year (Marcedes Lewis) and backup WRs who are so meh that they actually mourned the loss of Troy Williamson last week. Yes, that Troy Williamson.

The Texans are starting to get antsy about their own feature back, last year's rookie flash Steve Slaton. Double S put on some pounds in the off-season to be better in the red zone, and as a result, he's been worse in every other zone this year, with moronic fantasy honks wondering if now is the time to roster vulture/goal line/ made of balsa wood back up Chris Brown. It's not and he ain't; Slaton rewards your patience this week. Assuming, of course, that the Texans don't just want to pad Matt Schaub, Owen Daniels and Andrew Johnson's numbers instead.

Texans 38, Jaguars 17

CHICAGO (-3) at Seattle

One of those lines that I hate to make a pick on, because the spread should change all the way up to game time depending on the status of Seattle starting QB Matt Hasselbeck. With the Hass, the home team has the ability to stretch the field (especially to TE John Carlson), Nate Burleson and TJ Houshmanzadeh have an extra incentive to run, and the Bears can't stack the box against the meager offering that is the Hawk ground game. With Seneca Wallace in there, all of the receivers take a hit, the box will be jammed like the front row of a Killers concert (this is why I listen to new music, really; to be able to pass with the kids on left field allusions), and the home team will try to win via the practical magic known as Game Management. Not exactly a riveting strategy, especially for a team with a very good base defense and an emerging QB in Jay Cutler.

If the Hass is able to shrug off the rib pain and go, expect a quarter or two of inspired home team play, and the Hawks' home bully / road speedbump tendency is well pronounced. But I think this is the week that Matt Forte reminds the world that he's actually really good, and the Bears' defense shows they can put a QB -- even a mobile one like Seneca Wallace -- on the ground without Brian Urlacher on the field. There's also some chance for Gregg Olsen to do some damage here, as the Seabags can forget about the TE, and Bears rookie WR Johnny Knox has been doing enough to make teams adjust their top level coverage.

Bears 27, Seahawks 20

NEW ORLEANS (-6.5) at Buffalo

The league's premier pinball machine comes to western New York, where the no-huddle Bills promise to make this a game where you can not stop thinking about betting the over. But the hidden thing about this Saints team, and the reason why I think they are more than a September fad, is that they have a handful of defensive veterans (Darren Sharper chief among them) who are prone to taking advantage of the opponent's mistakes, and when you play from ahead as much as the Saints will this year, mistakes will be made. This isn't to say that that the Saint defense is actually very good; it's not and won't be, seemingly, in my lifetime, especially since the offense isn't exactly dominating time of possession. But it will be good enough.

As for the Bills, I suppose you can say that they are just a collapse away from being a 2-0 team and leading their division. But they are a mediocre mix of talent at best, Terrible Owens really isn't all that special any more, and the Saints are just way too damned good for Trent Edwards to keep up with.

Saints 31, Bills 20

PITTSBURGH (+4) at Cincinnati

Another bad team with a story as to why they aren't undefeated, the Bengals rode huge days from Cedric Benson and Antwan Odom to a shocking win last week in Green Bay, while the Steelers were blowing a highly winnable road game in Chicago with faulty field-goal kicking. The Bengals defense could be better than usual, the McBeams do miss safety Troy Polamalu, and Willie Parker might remain the most overrated player in the NFL... but, um, these are the Bengals going against the defending Super Bowl champions, in a game that they want. I'm looking for a big effort from the defense, Big Ben to make some places while evading the rush, and Carson Palmer to continue to be the least-known liability in the league.

Steelers 24, Bengals 17

Denver at OAKLAND (-2)

Will Kyle Orton ever know defeat as the stating quarterback for the Broncos? After two games, his winning percentage puts people like Jay Cutler and John Elway to shame, and this line is a national outrage, that the man is getting this little respect from the fans and gambling public. Come out, come out, everyone who wanted to tell me how he'd be better than Cutler for fantasy purposes! Your man needs your support!

As for the home team, they won last week on penalties and punts in Kansas City, with the offense finally punching it through on a Darren McFadden run late. The effort led Chief Fan to want to run their new coach out on a rail, and have him take the shiny new QB -- you know, the one that caused all of the trouble in Denver in the first place -- with him. Such a fantastic division, this.

I hate to put anything at risk with Special Olympian JaMarcus Russell at the helm, and the Broncos have spent most of the last decade killing the Raiders, especially on the road... well, things have changed without Mike Shanahan at the helm, and J-Russ is going to have big home/road splits. At home, he's just bad, and just bad is going to be enough here.

Raiders 17, Broncos 14

Miami at SAN DIEGO (-6)

Two teams coming off heartbreaking losses. The Chargers got stuffed on a Special Norv Moment, with Darren Sproles getting the rock in a power dive formation while Ray Lewis screamed like a man getting away with murder. (I kill me!) The home team has serious issues with the health of the offensive line and LaDanian Tomlinson making the team one dimensional on offense, and a defense that hasn't been dynamic at all yet. The Dolphins are in an 0-2 hole with an offense that seems impossible of making a big play, with top WR Ted Ginn Jr. in particular looking helpless.

The number is too large for comfort for a Turner coched team, since they can crap the bed at any time... but I like the home team to have a breakout day against a club with a short week and no playmakers. I also like Tomlinson's chances of giving a raised middle finger to his haters, even if it's only in the short run, because that loss against the Colts is one of those games that cause a team to doubt their coach. With good reason. (And if the Fish can't stop Peyton Manning at home with a ridiculously rested defense, why should they do any better against the rested Charger weapons on the road?)

Chargers 34, Dolphins 13

Indianapolis at ARIZONA (-2.5)

The second straight trip under the lights for the Houdini Colts, who get the similarly QB dependent Cards in a game where the announcers will heap enough praise on the signal callers to keep them buffed and polished until November. Arizona road pinpoint passing from Kurt Warner and an Antrel Rolle field kick block and touchdown to a win in Jacksonville, while the Colts escaped Miami with their time of no possession win on MNF.

This game lines up perfectly for the Warners; it's at home, against a defense that isn't very good, with the benefit of the road team getting the short week. Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston looked much healthier, and even the running game doesn't look terrible. I like the team from Tempe here.

Cardinals 26, Colts 21

Carolina at DALLAS (-9)

Now, here's the home opening opponent the Cowboys really wanted; a team with a much more suspect quarterback, an offensive line that doesn't stand out, and a fresh new broadcasting crew to fellate Jerruh for his Jerruhsoleum.

The Panthers can win this game; they will be desperate to save their season from an 0-3 hole, and Steve Smith by his own damn self is a great deal of trouble. Marion Barber is likely to stay out, leading to overpassing and the return of Evil Tony Romo. We could see a first-class turnover fest.

But I think Romo Ono will shake off last week's nightmare, and that the Carolina catastrophe won't end until someone puts a stake into Jake Delhomme's chest. Paging AJ van Helsing...

Cowboys 27, Panthers 16

Last week: 8-7-1
Year to date: 13-18-1

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