Chiefs Go for the Early KO; Cowboys at the Crossroads
It sure feels great to stop overreacting to Week 1's results. Now on to the Week 2 game previews, which are heavily influenced by overreactions to Week 1's results.
Game of the Week: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
If the Chiefs win, they clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Ravens are eliminated from contention.
OK, that's not true at all. It just feels true.
The Chiefs' odds of winning the AFC ticked up from 29.6% to 30.5% with their win over the Browns and the Ravens and Bills' losses in Week 1. Our system noted those losses by the Chiefs' top challengers but also acknowledged the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders victories: a better AFC West means tougher sledding for the Chiefs. Our system also isn't going to start doling out probabilities much higher than 30% after one game, because that's how probabilities work: a 30.5% chance to win a conference in September is already dizzyingly high.
The Ravens' playoff odds, meanwhile, dropped 11.1 percentage points to a still respectable 61.6%. They'll be fine once they straighten some things out. Those things won't be straightened out before Saturday, however, which means they are at high risk to fall to 0-2 in the conference with a head-to-head loss that is likely to have tiebreaker ramifications in January.
The Need to Mesh: I visited Ravens OTAs and training camp several times in 2019, when they were first installing their Lamar Jackson-friendly option package. They spent a lot of time practicing their handoffs. Every team spends lots of time practicing handoffs, mind you, but it usually goes unnoticed: the press pool watches the offensive and defensive linemen duke it out while the quarterbacks hand off to running backs against air. But the Ravens had lots of different option mesh handoffs to perfect, and it was hard not to notice how many little pivots, pitches, and exchanges they had to work on from different backfield formations.
Jackson is working with a bunch of running backs he essentially just met on Labor Day weekend, of course. It was clear on Monday night that the Ravens are not comfortable with their exchanges. There were some fumbles and bobbles, plus lots of very routine handoffs from under center that were not very Ravens-like. Without the robust option package, Lamar Jackson looked a little like Scrambly Jared Goff: better than regular Jared Goff, mind you, but far from an MVP candidate. Factor in an injury situation along the offensive line that's already deteriorating (Ronnie Staley is out for Sunday), and the Ravens offense may be moving in fits and starts for a while.
While Jackson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman adjust to life with reduced options, defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale responded to life without Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith by coming down with a case of Rob Ryan Disease, mixing over-aggressive blitzes with under-aggressive three-man rushes in prevent situations. (Wink worked for Ryan, making him highly susceptible to the Rob Variant). The cure for RRD is better cornerbacks, and Smith is on track to return soon. "Soon" may not be soon enough (he was a limited midweek practice participant), and Smith may not be enough against an opponent that will throw for six trillion yards if the Ravens defense keeps overreacting in two different directions.
Same Old Song and Dance: Now that their offensive line is at least somewhat repaired, the Patrick Mahomes Chiefs have become like the Tom Brady Patriots or Peyton Manning Colts of the past: impenetrable to commentary and somewhat boring to analyze. Their strengths appear overwhelming, their weaknesses irrelevant against most opponents.
Judging from the boxscores (Chiefs wins of 27-24 in overtime in 2018, 33-28 in 2019, 34-20 last year), the Chiefs have spent the last three years slowly pulling further away from the Ravens. Nothing we saw in Week 1 suggests that the Ravens have caught up. So while a Chiefs victory on Sunday guarantees nothing, it will prove another of their would-be challengers wanting, and it will likely add another percentage point or so to Super Bowl odds that are already looking a little overwhelming. Chiefs 34, Ravens 24.
Tennessee Titans at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
The Titans used play-action just three times on Sunday per Sports Info Solutions, resulting in two Ryan Tannehill sacks and one incomplete pass.
Three play-action pass attempts? Excuse me while I process this information by running it past various aspects of my psyche.
TRADITIONALIST: That's absurd. How can a team with Derrick Henry not make play-action a focal point of its passing game?
ANALYTICS FUNDAMENTALIST: Um, actually, there's a mountain of evidence that suggests that the quality of the running game has no bearing whatsoever on the success of play-action.
FILM-GUY PURIST: This is a testament to Arthur Smith's brilliance as a coordinator and the impact of his absence.
TRADITIONALIST: Since when do you have to be "brilliant" to fake some handoffs when the entire defense expects you to run?
ANALYTICS FUNDAMENTALIST: Um, actually, true brilliance comes from realizing that play-action is always more efficient than ordinary passing or, perish the thought, rushing.
FILM-GUY PURIST: The Titans were out of the game by halftime. You can't run play-action effectively when you are down by more than two scores.
ANALYTICS FUNDAMENTALIST: Ummmm, ac-tu-al-ly, Henry rushed several times in the third quarter, when the Titans still had a chance. Is there a situation where a team can run the ball but cannot execute play-action? I'll wait.
TRADITIONALIST: Imma punch you in the throat.
In summary: play-action is an Infinity Stone that works regardless of personnel or situation, the only person in the NFL smart enough to realize it now coaches the Falcons, and the Titans offense has the potential to cause some severe self-loathing if it doesn't straighten things out.
Watch NFC West versus AFC South games at your peril, especially if you are an AFC South fan. Seahawks 28, Titans 21.
Minnesota Vikings at Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
How this game will go:
- The Vikings and Cardinals will combine for 15 holding and false start penalties on their opening drives. The Vikings will blame the crowd noise, even though the stadium vibe will be less "Seahawks home playoff game" and more "suburban folk festival." The Cardinals just can't be bothered with little details like snap counts.
- The Cardinals will take a 14-point lead as Kliff Kingsbury opens up his playbook to provide opportunities for weapons ranging from DeAndre Hopkins to Christian Kirk to rookie Rondale Moore to running backs Chase Edmonds and James Conner.
- The Vikings will line up in the I-formation on 20 of their first 25 snaps to get the maximum usage out of C.J. Ham.
- Chandler Jones will rip out Vikings tackle Rashod Hill's liver, dice it up with some mushrooms and olives, and force Kirk Cousins to eat it on a Triscuit. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim will reward Jones by offering a contract extension to A.J. Green.
- Trailing by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings will start a drive with a holding penalty, followed by a Dalvin Cook handoff on first-and-20, an incompletion, and a 12-yard pass on third-and-18. Seriously, how do Vikings fans endure this year after year?
- Late, doomed Vikings rally time! Make sure you start Justin Jefferson in all your fantasy leagues, because he's going 4-65-1 in the fourth quarter.
- The Cardinals become trendy playoff sleepers after their victories against both the Minnesota and Tennessee Vikings. It will all come crashing down when they face an organization with more imagination than the typical accounting textbook. Cardinals 27, Vikings 22.
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Some Cowboys Notes:
- The Linebacker Rotation: Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal are on the field whenever the Cowboys want to be good at football. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch replace them whenever Jerry Jones needs reassurance about his past decisions. For past precedent, see the Felix Jones/Marion Barber/Tashard Choice running back rotation of the early 2010s. It's hard fitting both Jerrah's old and new toys in one toy box.
- Ezekiel Elliott, Fullback: He lined up there for a few snaps in the season opener and made more of an impact as a pass-protector than as a rusher or receiver. Frankly, I love the idea of using Elliott as a $90-million blocker and short-yardage weapon, if only because I think it would trick the Vikings into offering $92 million to C.J. Ham.
- Zack Martin and La'El Collins: Cowboys tradition dictates that their big-name offensive linemen are never all available at the same time and that the loss of any one of their top linemen renders the whole organization utterly dysfunctional. The Cowboys signed Ty Nsekhe, the Ryan Fitzpatrick of tackles, to prevent this silliness, but all the midweek chatter was about press-ganging Martin (fresh off a back injury) out to right tackle to replace the suspended Collins. If anything happens to Tyron Smith—and something ALWAYS happens to Tyron Smith—the Cowboys must either: A) have Martin play three positions; B) move some linebackers to the offensive line; C) do what they did last year (surrender and die).
The line crept up to Chargers -3.5 on Wednesday afternoon. It may slip another half-point by the time you read this (Tank Lawrence's foot surgery was announced during edits). I think of the Cowboys' talent as 3.5-point road dogs against the Cowboys' coaching and management, and I worry about the team's long-term prospects if we arrived at this crossroads before my lawn even stopped growing. Chargers 24, Cowboys 21.
Los Angeles Rams at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.
It's that time again, everyone! Time to beat a dead horse? Time to risk my reputation by constantly ripping the same guy? No! I mean … yes! It's time for the Carson Wentz Victimization Index!
- DVOA ranks Wentz at -4.7% after Week 1, but DVOA is prejudiced against truly pious lovers of Freedom: 10%.
- Also, -4.7% is a significant improvement for Wentz, but no one is giving him enough credit for it: 5%.
- Wentz's high Time to Throw (2.92 seconds), below average Aggressiveness Index (13.2%), and low Air Yards to the Sticks (-3.2) from Next Gen Stats suggest that he was both holding the ball too long and not taking enough risks, a very troubling combination. But Wentz did his own research and determined that he was just fine: 10%.
- Seriously, Teddy Bridgewater's raw stats were nearly identical, but everyone is gushing over him. It's not fair! 5%.
- Eagles fans are laughing at Wentz after Jalen Hurts' performance. He can sense it: 20%.
- Total Victimization: 50%
As you can see, the CWVI is holding steady. Or maybe it's decreasing? I'm not paying that much attention. We'll see how it's holding up after a second straight home loss to an NFC West team.
The praise for Matthew Stafford and the Rams was a little too effusive this week after they narrowly pulled away from the Bears on a handful of splash plays, but most of the Colts offensive line is banged up in some way, which is bad news when Aaron Donald is coming to town and your quarterback likes to wait until receivers are extra-extra-extra open. Rams 29, Colts 21.
New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Panthers, who were a red zone disaster in 2020 (27th in DVOA on offense, 30th in goal-to-go situations), scored one touchdown in four red zone trips against the Jets, with a fumbled handoff and two short field goals on their other series. They also went 4-of-14 on third-down conversions and only scored 19 points against an East-West Shrine Game roster with an injured punter who gave them average starting field position on the 37-yard line.
You can read more about Jameis Winston in Thursday's Walkthrough. I jumped on the Saints -3.5 during the Saints coaching COVID scare midweek. I've seen them win games with a depleted coaching staff before. Saints 26, Panthers 16.
Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Dolphins rank seventh in first-down DVOA after one week but 31st on third and fourth downs and dead last on third-and-long. From Lieutenant Tua Tagovailoa (not a captain) to the offensive line, they looked like they lacked a plan when forced into obvious passing situations. The returns of Will Fuller and (possibly) left tackle Austin Jackson may help, though Liam Eichenberg played well in relief, and Tua's problem didn't appear to be a lack of weapons.
Both DVOA and EdjSports think the Dolphins can hover in the no-win cover or narrow upset range, especially at +3.5. I can live with that. Bills 24, Dolphins 22.
Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Bears are currently where the Bengals were in 2016 or 2017. They're a rebuilding team that obstinately refuses to believe it, with Andy Dalton at quarterback and a coaching administration desperately clinging to its very modest past success.
Justin Fields gives the Bears an exit strategy that the Marv Lewis Bengals lacked, but the moment the Bears commit to Fields they become the 2020 Bengals: rookie quarterback, a terrible offensive line, and crumbling veteran core on defense. There's nothing worse than being a year away from even being a rebuilding team, which is why Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy are in such deep denial about it.
The Bears should be able to beat the Bengals with sheer veteran competence, but that's what the Vikings thought last week. Bears 19, Bengals 16.
Houston Texans at Cleveland Browns, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Browns are 12.5-point favorites. They haven't been favored by that much since 1995, when Bill Belichick's Browns faced the first-year expansion Jaguars, and lost.
The Browns are 1-2 against the spread as double-digit favorites since 2018, with a pair of no-cover victories. This game reeks of backdoor cover potential for the Texans, with Tyrod Taylor exacting vengeance on one of his former teams by scrambling and throwing a bomb to Brandin Cooks down by 21 points late in the fourth quarter and David Culley playing for a field goal on the final drive for reasons that make perfect sense to the Texans. Browns 37, Texans 26.
Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.
With Jerry Jeudy sidelined indefinitely with a high ankle sprain, Tim Patrick should start on the outside opposite Courtland Sutton, allowing KJ Hamler to remain in the slot. Patrick played well against the Giants on Sunday and caught 51 passes last season. Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam also give the Broncos the option of exploiting mismatches from two-tight end sets.
Gosh, it feels strange to write about the Broncos offense as if it is something relevant and exciting after so many years.
You can read more about both the Broncos and the Jaguars in Wednesday's Walkthrough. Broncos 27, Jaguars 13.
New England Patriots at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Mac Jones and Zach Wilson should pull the ol' prince-and-the-pauper switcheroo in the first half so Wilson can be the poised, polished young field commander and Jones can learn what it's like to be a rabbit in a wolf rescue preserve for a few series. No one would notice the difference, and it wouldn't impact the outcome of the game at all. Grab the Patriots -5.5 before the sharps show up on Sunday morning. Patriots 26, Jets 10.
San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Niners receivers led the NFL with 10.8 yards after catch per reception in Week 1. The Eagles finished second with 7.5 YAC per reception. Jimmy Garoppolo's average depth of target was a respectable (especially by his dinky/dunky standards) 7.0 yards. Jalen Hurts' aDOT was a league-low 3.4, about which all sorts of contradictory and utterly premature conclusions have already been drawn.
In other words, this game is going to be a YAC party for fans of open-field running and intricate screen concepts. It should be exciting enough to make you forget how much fun it would be to watch Trey Lance starting in either system. 49ers 27, Eagles 24.
Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Raiders upset the Saints 34-24 in Week 2 in 2020 when the Saints committed 129 yards of penalties, then beat the Chiefs 40-32 in a Week 5 game that felt a lot like their Monday night upset of the Ravens. They're very capable of surprising sloppy contenders early in the season. Then Jon Gruden's latest wrinkles get figured out, they're forced to turn to their meager bench because of some injuries, and the losses to the Falcons start happening.
It's still early in the season, of course, and the Steelers appear to be overvalued as 5.5-point favorites (according to Thursday's line). Look for the newly discovered Raiders pass rush to either force mistakes or drop Ben Roethlisberger's time-to-throw below the two-second threshold as the Offense of a Million Screens fails to move the ball consistently. Meanwhile, the Raiders should be able to do enough with field position and scattered big plays to keep things close. Steelers 22, Raiders 20.
Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
The Buccaneers could hand off to Ronald Jones on every single first and second down in this game and still cover the -12.5 spread. The Buccaneers just might hand off to Ronald Jones on every single first and second down in this game and still cover the -12.5 spread. Buccaneers 37, Falcons 14.
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
The Packers are obviously going to romp. So can we talk about Aaron Rodgers' new look instead?
Aaron Rodgers ends Week 1 as QB 35 in fantasy points.
Only 32 teams played. pic.twitter.com/OpqUHrNwrR
— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) September 14, 2021
The craggy features. The bristly greying whiskers. The man bun. The ceaseless smirk of unearned (OK: really, really earned) superiority. Rodgers' look is one part Marvel villain trying to convince Spider-Man he's really a hero, one part your sister's first post-divorce Bitcoin entrepreneur boyfriend, and one part Mister Hard Sell at the boat show. Rodgers has managed to make himself look like a parody of Aaron Rodgers. But then, maybe I am just seeing him through the prism of the "narrative."
At least Rodgers is not suspiciously growing his hairline back like Drew Brees. Packers 34, Lions 19.