(In a shadowy, candlelit temple somewhere…)
JAMES HARRISON: Behold! We are the Council of Elders of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry!
HALOTI NGATA: Preservers of the sacred traditions!
JAMES FARRIOR: It falls upon us to decree how Sunday's game will play out!
TODD HEAP: Sunday's game shall be hard-hitting and low scoring. Like, somewhere around a 23-20 final.
LaMARR WOODLEY: There shall be sacks. Turnovers. Injuries.
JOE FLACCO: The quarterbacks will not play very well.
CASEY HAMPTON: There shall be lots of punts and field goals.
RAY LEWIS: The game will be a resplendent testimonial to the virtues of quintessential tenacity and exuberant competitiveness to which we will all bear fundamental witness.
ED REED: In other words, lots of tackling.
BEN ROETHLISBERGER: Hey guys.
HARRISON: It's Big Ben! Join us!
ALL ELDERS IN UNISON: Join us! Join us!
ROETHLISBERGER: Not yet. I just think you fellas have it all wrong. Both the Ravens and Steelers are really balanced teams now. And we have loads of offensive stars and exciting systems. Right, Lamar?
LAMAR JACKSON: Truss.
HARRISON: Behold! I see their point.
NGATA: Behold! Let us begin a new chapter of this rivalry in which anything can happen and new legends can emerge.
HARRISON: Indeed. Let us adjourn this meeting of the Council of Elders and order some sandwiches.
ALL ELDERS IN UNISON: Sandwiches!
FLACCO: Oh, you guys are ordering lunch? Um, sorry, I cannot stay. I've got a thing up in Florham Park.
Le'VEON BELL: Heh heh heh. Good luck with that.
Steelers at Ravens, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Ravens and Steelers rank first and second in the league in average starting field position per drive. The average Ravens drive starts on the 34.11-yard line, the average Steelers drive on the 33.54-yard line.
Great average starting field position is primarily a function of turnovers and fourth-down stops, with kick /punt returns and overall defensive success also contributing. The Ravens and Steelers actually rank in the middle of the pack in takeaways this season, but Ravens opponents are just 5-of-15 on fourth-down conversions, and Steelers opponents are just 1-of-8. The Ravens and Steelers have each gotten a few positive plays on returns as well, and sacks that lead to punts also play a role in flipping field position.
Great field position can be as much a byproduct of success as a cause (desperate opponents going for fourth downs in their own territory while trailing in the fourth quarter, for example), but short drives have helped both of these teams secure victories this season, not just preserve them. Great field position can also mask some deficiencies in an offense, while terrible field position (the Cowboys rank last in the league) can exacerbate problems. DVOA isn't all that impressed by the Steelers and Ravens' offenses, which both move in streaks and spurts despite all of their big names and past successes. Starting a drive or two per game across midfield has helped both offenses significantly.
So despite the conclusion of the Council of Elders, this game may be more like an old-fashioned Steelers-Ravens game than you would expect.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Steelers 23
Saints at Bears, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
There are rumblings about Matt Nagy turning over play-calling duties to one of the 47 experienced offensive coordinators on his staff. There are also rumblings that Nick Foles is frustrated by play calls that he knows he simply won't have time to execute. Foles and Nagy squelched those rumblings as best they could after the Bears' loss to the Rams on Monday night.
Remember when Nagy's offense made the Bears look like a credible Chiefs tribute band? Here are highlights from Mitchell Trubisky's six-touchdown game in 2018, and from another of his big performances that year: lots of spread and bunch formations, vertical concepts, jet motion with play-action, a variety of shovel passes and screens, wide open receivers everywhere. And then there were all the goal-line plays with T-formations and defenders playing on offense and such.
The Bears playbook has constricted instead of expanding during Nagy's tenure. That's a sign of a coach losing confidence in concepts when they don't work, losing faith in his quarterbacks, and overreacting to the losses of weapons such as Tarik Cohen. The Bears offense is in tortoise mode, which to some degree is inevitable with an immobile quarterback playing behind a beaten-up line, but the returns began diminishing hard on Monday night.
Michael Thomas is still questionable for this week, and Emmanuel Sanders was still on the COVID list at press time. As NBC Sports Chicago noted, the Bears defeated the Lions when Kenny Golladay was hurt, beat the Falcons without Julio Jones, and faced the Bucs when Chris Godwin was out and the rest of the receiving corps was in various states of ouch. The heavens smile on children, fools, and the teams Nick Foles plays for. But only so much.
Prediction: Saints 22, Bears 13
Patriots at Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Patriots offense ranks dead-last in first-quarter DVOA and third-and-long DVOA. Their offense ranks 31st in the league in first-half DVOA, first-down passing DVOA, DVOA when tied or losing small, front-zone DVOA (the area between the opponents' 20- and 40-yard lines) and probably a bunch of other splits which I didn't bother (or don't quite remember how) to look up. They rank below the Jets in a shocking number of relevant/meaningful categories.
It's tempting to lump the Bills and Patriots together as teams that are slumping after promising starts. In fact, the Bills are your basic AFC playoff also-ran finding its level after an early-season sugar rush and the Patriots are Constantinople in 1454: the sacked ruins of an empire that had been silently crumbling from within for longer than anyone believed.
The Bills probably won't romp in this game, because they have a bad case of Early-2010s Bengals Disease, and the sight of Patriots helmets will give them an organization-wide case of the turbo yips. But they should win, and that should mark the final stage of the Patriots' tumble toward irrelevance.
Prediction: Bills 24, Patriots 18
49ers at Seahawks, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
PATRICK WILLIS: Behold! We are the Council of Elders of the Seahawks-49ers rivalry, the preservers of the sacred traditions! It falls upon us to decree how Sunday's game will play out!
PERCY HARVIN: This game shall awaken memories of the early- to mid-2010s, a simpler time before Twitch streamers and fast food delivery apps!
COLIN KAEPERNICK: A time when read-option tactics took the league by storm and political unrest was less prominent in our society!
KAM CHANCELLOR: Oh hey Colin. Um … like, we weren't sure you were coming?
KAEPERNICK: What's wrong?
BRANDON BROWNER: Oh nothing, pal. It's just … you know, it's a week before the election, and everyone's a little … how shall I put this?
MICHAEL BENNETT: I sincerely hope no one is suggesting that we exclude Colin, a central figure in this rivalry, for political reasons.
ALL ELDERS IN UNISON: (uncomfortable muttering).
KAEPERNICK: Fine. I think I made my point, anyway. This rivalry is about a period of history that we might never get back, even though it wasn't very long ago, and about how the changing "face" of the NFL was destined to intersect with deeper changes throughout society.
BENNETT: Thank you for that reminder. I think everyone needed it. And now, let's adjourn the meeting and order sandwiches.
ALL ELDERS IN UNISON: Sandwiches!
FRANK GORE: Oh, you guys are ordering lunch? Um, sorry, I cannot stay. I've got a thing up in Florham Park.
MARSHAWN LYNCH: I'm just standing here so I don't get fined.
Now that the council has had its say, here's a solution to the Seahawks defensive woes: have their best offensive players become two-way players!
- Russell Wilson, slot cornerback: he's quick enough, has a quarterback's grasp of route concepts, and no one will care about his height.
- Tyler Lockett, outside cornerback: After four years of playing at a Pro Bowl level on defense, folks will start to notice how good he is.
- DK Metcalf, edge rusher: Admit it, you think this is a legitimately good idea.
- Travis Homer, Sam linebacker: Have you ever noticed that every time Homer gets tackled it looks like a seven-car pileup? He has no idea how to avoid contact. When he becomes a situational run-thumper and occasional interior blitzer, that will become someone else's problem.
The Seahawks are unlikely to embrace the two-way concept this week, which means Jimmy Garoppolo will have all afternoon to stand in the pocket and survey the field. He'll still mostly throw screens and shovel passes, mind you, but it's still wonderful to have the time.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Seahawks 26
Falcons at Panthers, Thursday, 8:20 p.m.
Let's explore some of the remaining unlikely ways the Falcons can lose a game in the final moments:
- Fumble touchback. Here's a good one: Julio Jones leaps for the pylon while trying to score a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds, only to lose his grip on the football so briefly that it's only detectable in a single frame by a 360-degree VR camera. Worst of all, the Falcons only trail by one point and would have kicked a game-winning field goal if Jones had simply been ruled out of bounds.
- Extra point runback. Simple, elegant, and Falcons-worthy: a touchdown in the final seconds gives them a one-point lead, but Younghoe Koo's extra point attempt is blocked and run back for a two-point conversion the other way. To add insult to injury, the Falcons field goal unit doesn't understand the rule and just watches the defender race to the opposite end zone without trying to stop him. (And yes, we know something like this already happened to the Falcons not too long ago.)
- Jim Marshall wrong-way touchdown. The Falcons are three years overdue for a play where a defender scores an "own goal" after a turnover. The only part of this scenario which is implausible is a Falcons defender causing a turnover.
- Failed spike to stop the clock. Matt Ryan tries to hurl the ball straight at the ground and misses: the ball bounces off a lineman's foot and flies straight back into Ryan's arms. Ryan instinctively clutches the ball and hits the deck, allowing time to expire.
- Being a horrendously coached team full of veterans who have more or less checked out in the three-plus years since Super Bowl LII. This is the real reason why the Falcons lose each week; all of the rest is just script-polishing.
Prediction: Panthers 28, Falcons 27
Raiders at Browns, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Something to remember with Odell Beckham out for the season: when someone voices a "Team X plays better without 'controversial' superstar Y" opinion, ask yourself whether they form the exact same opinion about every "controversial" superstar.
Prediction: Browns 37, Raiders 31
Rams at Dolphins, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Silly, silly, silly. The Tua Tagovailoa controversies are already far too silly.
- Last week's "is the Dolphins offensive line terrible or secretly tremendous?" dustup was silly. Ryan Fitzpatrick's average time to throw of 2.41 seconds (per Next Gen Stats) was the third-quickest in the NFL, so of course the Dolphins sack rate was relatively low. Sports Info Solutions assigns a surprisingly low number of blown blocks to the Dolphins line (Ereck Flowers, Solomon Kinley, and Jesse Davis lead the team with six each), but I cannot find any other reason to classify the Dolphins line as anything better than "stable and slowly improving." At any rate, a team that waits until the offensive line is perfect to unveil its quarterback of the future never unveils its quarterback of the future.
- The "Dolphins locker room is divided" argument is silly. Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald breaks down the reasons in this column, which includes revealing quotes from Fitzpatrick's biggest boosters on the team. From a human nature standpoint, it's unlikely that Fitzpatrick forged lots of deep bonds over Zoom meetings (he's not an Eli Manning who led the team for a decade), that veterans were blown away by the Jets or Jaguars wins (the Dolphins defense did everything it could to beat the Seahawks, but Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions), that anyone in the locker room didn't accept that the switch was just a matter of time, and so forth.
- Fitzpatrick's press conference airing of grievances last week was also silly. Fitzpatrick has always been a coy media charmer eager to keep his name and image in the mind of his next employer, whether that turns out to be a head coach or a broadcast producer. Fitzpatrick is getting paid specifically to NOT say the things he said, but he's positioning himself to be the next Tony Romo, so it was probably a shrewd long-term business decision.
You'll notice that I made no real first-hand observations in those bullet points. I have not watched much of the Dolphins this year and have not dove deep into their film at all. Many of the other folks with strong opinions about them have not, either, because there are only so many hours in a day and the ROI on analyzing a small-market rebuilding team is miniscule.
The Dolphins officially become worthy of attention on Sunday. Unfortunately, that means there will be a drastic increase, not a reduction, in silly controversies.
Prediction: Rams 30, Dolphins 22
Vikings at Packers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Next Gen Stats credits Davante Adams with four touchdowns outside the numbers this season, the most in the NFL. But Sports Info Solutions credits Adam Thielen with the most touchdowns marked with a direction of "left" or "right" (as opposed to "left middle," "middle" or "right middle." Here are the stats:
Thielen: 22 catches on 34 targets (26 catchable), 344 yards, five touchdowns.
Adams: 17 catches on 24 targets (18 catchable), 263 yards, four touchdowns.
Several other receivers are credited with four touchdowns, including Calvin Ridley, who leads the league with 27 catches and 476 yards "outside the numbers."
The big difference, as demonstrated in the Packers' season-opening victory over the Vikings, is that Adams usually makes catches and touchdowns that help the Packers seal a victory while most Vikings receiving production comes when the team is hopelessly trailing and Kirk Cousins is sprucing up his stat line.
Prediction: Packers 34, Vikings 24
Titans at Bengals, Sunday, 1 p.m.
With Carlos Dunlap
in bubble wrap before the trade deadline heading to Seattle and D.J. Reader out for the year, the Bengals defense now consists of Pro Bowl-caliber safety Jessie Bates III and about a dozen starters and top subs whom Titans equipment managers will have to wedge out of Derrick Henry's cleats on Sunday evening.
Prediction: Titans 34, Bengals 23
Jets at Chiefs, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Jets were 21-point underdogs in this game as of Wednesday. There have only been 13 underdogs by 20 or more points in the NFL since 1978, the furthest recesses of the Stathead point spread database.
The last teams to be 20-point dogs were the Jets (to the Patriots) and Dolphins (to the Cowboys) in Week 3 of 2019. The Jets, with Luke Falk at quarterback, backdoor-covered thanks to Jamal Adams' pick-six of Jarrett Stidham in a 30-14 loss. The Dolphins failed to cover in a 31-6 loss. If the Dolphins and Cowboys faced off this week, the spread would look very different. (A Jets-Patriots spread would look somewhat different).
The first 20-point spreads in the database date back to the 1987 replacement games and feature strikebreaker teams: lots of real-life Dallas Cowboys legends against Buddy Ryan's Eagles conscientious objectors; and Joe Montana, Roger Craig and many other 49ers legends crossing the picket lines to kick around the Atlanta Falcons. Both underdogs somehow covered. Tom Landry eventually stopped press-ganging a reluctant Tony Dorsett and some not-so-reluctant others onto the field to beat up on the poor Eagles replacements, and Scott Tinsley threw a pair of late touchdowns for a 41-22 backdoor cover of a 21.5-point spread. Bill Walsh also called off the dogs early, and Falcons replacement quarterback Erik Kramer (later a successful NFL starter) kept things respectable in a 25-17 cover of a 23.0-point spread.
In summary, the house generally only rolls out a 20-point spread when future Hall of Famers are facing off against a bunch of guys who should be installing windows for a living. And that sums up this matchup and the states of both franchises rather neatly.
Prediction: Chiefs 37, Jets 16
Cowboys at Eagles, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
BRIAN DAWKINS: Behold! We are the Council of Elders of the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry, the preservers of the…
DeMARCUS WARE: Fuck this noise, man. These teams are embarrassing. Let's just go get sandwiches.
ALL ELDERS IN UNISON: Sandwiches!
Walkthrough proudly presents the Carson Wentz Dropback Outcome Simulator! Simply roll two dice and consult the chart:
2: Routine completion to someone you have never heard of.
3: Pass tipped at line.
4: Incomplete; Eagles offensive lineman injured.
5: Screen you saw coming from the huddle; loss of 3.
6: Perfect 40-yard teardrop caught by someone who was on the Lions practice squad until Tuesday.
7: Coverage sack.
8. Perfect 40-yard teardrop dropped by someone the Eagles drafted instead of DK Metcalf or Justin Jefferson.
9. Utterly hopeless third-and-15 play extended until it ends in an interception into quintuple-coverage or a strip-sack.
10: Incomplete; Eagles receiver injured.
11: Surprise! It's Jalen Hurts! (Two-point conversion fails).
12: Drive-and-soul crushing mental error (first through third quarters); breathtaking highlight touchdown (fourth quarter).
The Cowboys have been outscored 66-29 in the first quarter this year. The Eagles have been outscored 49-35. The big questions entering this game, besides "do the Cowboys employ a quarterback who knows how to properly field a snap?" and "why oh why oh Sweet Mother of Mercy why is this happening?" is how both teams will manage to trail by two touchdowns by halftime.
Prediction: Eagles 22, Cowboys 10
Chargers at Broncos, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Young quarterbacks usually have a few "big stat" games early in their careers, as well as a few "bad stat" games. I don't want to get super technical with the definitions, but let's call a three-touchdown performance a "big stat" game and more than two interceptions with one touchdown or less a "bad stat" game.
Neither type of game really signifies much -- we can all remember "big stat" games by guys such as Blake Bortles, and we referenced two of them by Mitch Trubisky earlier -- but it's probably worth noting when a young quarterback produces several of one type of game but few or none of the other.
Justin Herbert has produced three straight "big stat" games and has yet to produce a "bad stat" game. Drew Lock has only produced one "big stat" game in his career -- Week 14 against the Texans last year -- and has just produced back-to-back "bad stat" games.
It's easy to isolate good throws and fine decisions by Lock or find flaws with Herbert on film. We can point to dropped passes and differences in opponents and supporting casts. And of course it remains very early in both careers. But after a while, Herbert's ability to produce three-touchdown games against the Saints and Buccaneers (and Jaguars) will start to speak for itself, as will Lock's inability to produce big plays, even during blowouts.
In summary, Herbert is building an excellent foundation for his future. Lock needs to show more than pluck and potential soon if he hopes to have a future.
Prediction: Chargers 24, Broncos 17
Colts at Lions, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Welcome to the Battle of the Football Outsiders Almanac Playoff Sleeper Picks!
The Lions have started 3-3 or 3-3-1 in every season since 2016. What happens next is what matters, and the team does appear to be gearing up for a schedule-assisted playoff run. Everson Griffen soon arrives as a still-useful and much-needed edge rusher, but also as someone a 2-5 team in the midst of a shame spiral considered expendable.
The Colts face a Ravens-Titans-Packers-Titans stretch after this game, so this is the closest thing they have to an "easy win" until December.
Both of these teams fill me with remarkable ambivalence, but our projections indicated that both could reach the playoffs thanks to soft schedule and basic roster-wide competence, and I'm pleased that at least the winner of this game is likely to go on to meet that projection.
Prediction: Colts 23, Lions 20
Buccaneers at Giants, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
Rooting for the Buccaneers at this point is like rooting for a corporation willing to chop down a sequoia forest so it can sell designer toothpicks to billionaires who need to pry little bits of braised baby seal from between their molars.
Prediction: Buccaneers 37, Giants 13