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Week Four Picks

September 29th, 2016

I’m feeling OK with my 8-8 finish straight up in week three. And OK-ish about my 7-9 finish against the spread, too. Does either result actually point to an OK week? Not even close. But here’s the context: The favorites went 7-9 last week straight up. (Favorites were 4-11 against the spread. Just 15 games there because Baltimore-Jacksonville went off even.) And six of the favored teams that ended up losing outright were at home.

I’m not sure that counts as getting upset week out of the way. This early in the season, it’s more likely that many of us — fans, experts and oddsmakers alike — had overestimated a bunch of teams and underestimated a bunch more. So I’m still expecting a real upside-down week to hit somewhere around the middle of the season.

Just the same, I’m inclined to look at 8-8/7-9 in week three and figure things could have turned out a whole lot worse.

With that finish, I head into week four with my picks record for the season at 30-18 (.625) straight up, 24-24 (.500) against the spread. And that, of course, means it’s a fairly safe bet that I’m headed for disaster in week four. Fortunately for me byes start this week, which leaves me only 15 games to figure wrong.

Here’s what not to expect.

Miami (+7) at Cincinnati
Each of these teams is a win north of 0-3 by the narrowest margin imaginable. The Bengals got their sole victory back in week one when they managed to edge the Jets, another team with a talent for self-destruction. Then, last week, the Dolphins needed nearly half of an overtime period and an absolutely horrific day from Browns kicker Cody Parkey to stumble into their first win. That was in Miami. Against Cleveland, a team that had been outscored 54-30 in its first two games (both losses) and that was starting a rookie third-string quarterback. I expect each of these teams to do its damnedest to lose this game. But on a short week, I have to believe the visitors have the best chance of finding the losing formula. Cincinnati by a field goal.

Indianapolis (-2.5) vs. Jacksonville at Wembley Stadium, London
Sorry, England. Colts by four.

Cleveland (+8.5) at Washington
Sorry, America. Washington by a point.

Buffalo (+5.5) at New England
Sorry, Buffalo. Maybe your next coach and quarterback will be up to their respective jobs. (Though you may feel like you’ve heard that before.) Patriots by 14.

Seattle (-1) at NY Jets
The Seahawks ought to be able to win this game, regardless of the condition of Russell Wilson’s knee. Seattle’s defense has been plenty stout through the team’s first three games (though it seems worth noting that the Seahawks haven’t exactly faced the league’s stiffest competition — and that their only other road game ended in an embarrassing loss). And it’s not like the Jets bring a powerful offense to the field. Hell, the Jets may not even bring a functional offense to the field. Seems like Seattle’s D ought to be able to keep New Jersey off the board and clear a path to victory in a low-scoring game. But I’m not so sure. The Jets D did a pretty good job of getting to the quarterback in the team’s only other home game so far this young season. If they can do that again, they’ll give their offense extra chances to wear down the Hawks. And traveling from west coast to east coast to play a one o’clock game is never easy (just ask the Cardinals). The Jets also have to feel like they’ve got their backs against the wall following last weekend’s fiasco in Kansas City. I’ve got a feeling New Jersey finds a way to win this one. Probably with a final score that looks something like 13-12.

Carolina (-3) at Atlanta
I have no idea what to make of the NFC South right now. What I do know is that the Panthers should be a better team than the Falcons. And, although the teams’ records don’t reflect it, I feel pretty confident that the Panthers actually are a better team than the Falcons. If the team is going to succeed over the long term, Carolina’s going to need to do a much better job of protecting Cam Newton than they did last weekend. But against a defense like Atlanta’s, which has shown no ability to get to the quarterback thus far this season, that shouldn’t be a huge challenge. I like the Panthers to come out on top by a touchdown.

Detroit (-3) at Chicago
Say what you want about Brian Hoyer‘s performance Sunday night in Dallas. But I’ll tell you this much: In his seven quarters of service this season, Jay Cutler dropped back to pass 54 times and took eight sacks for a league-worst sack percentage of 14.8; Hoyer, over five quarters, has dropped back 61 times, many of them against defenses protecting three-score leads, and has taken zero sacks (for a league best sack percentage of 0.0). I’m not saying that makes Hoyer a better quarterback than Cutler, but it certainly suggest to me that Hoyer is a smarter quarterback than Cutler. And that, I think, makes Hoyer ther better choice for the Bears at the moment. It’s uncertain who’ll start behind center for Chicago this week, but even assuming it’s Hoyer, I don’t expect him to lead the Bears to a win. I do, however, think Hoyer gives Chicago a chance to keep it close. And then, you know, anything can happen, particularly in a divisional matchup. Lions by a point.

Tennessee (+5.5) at Houston
Pat Kirwan likes to talk about a long-term trend of teams that have been shut out winning big the next time they take the field. There’s a competing trend at play here, too, though. It’s the one where overrated teams tend to struggle for a game or two after being exposed by the Patriots. I suspect the Texans will find a middle ground. The Titans will move the ball effectively on the ground and give the home team a good scare, but the Texans will find a way to come out just ahead. Houston by a field goal.

Oakland (+3.5) at Baltimore
It’s tempting to say that this game comes down to whether the unbalanced Raiders find a defense or the unbalanced Ravens find an offense. But I don’t think that’s where this one turns. In this battle between teams that have looked slightly better than average thus far this season, I favor the one that’s shown an ability to hold onto the ball. That’s the Raiders. Oakland by two.

Denver (-3) at Tampa Bay
Three? Three? Are you kidding? I don’t care where they’re playing, Denver wins this one by something closer to 23.

Dallas (-3) at San Francisco
Neither am I sure that three points is anywhere close to adequate in this game, though the difference might not be quite as pronounced as in Broncos-Bucs. Let’s say Dallas by 10.

New Orleans (+3.5) at San Diego
If the Saints fall to 0-4, they’re sunk. I’m pretty sure they’re sunk. Chargers by four.

Los Angeles (+8) at Arizona
Once again, the Cardinals make the most of a matchup with a weak opponent to work out their frustrations from a loss to an AFC East team. Arizona by 17.

Kansas City (+5.5) at Pittsburgh
I still haven’t quite got my head around what happened to the Steelers last weekend. I can’t imagine Pittsburgh drops a second straight, particularly given that they’re home for this one. But neither do I think the Chiefs are likely to go down without a serious fight. Steelers by three.

NY Giants (+4.5) at Minnesota
Let’s set everything else aside and just look at this. Through three games (so not an ideal sample size, but not nothing), the Giants rank 30th in the league in turnover differential, -6 (one takeaway, seven giveaways); the Vikings rank first, +8 (nine takes, one give). That’s some bad news for the visitors right there. Minnesota by a touchdown.

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