We’re through three weeks of the NFL season and the cream has begun to rise, with teams like Kansas City and the L.A. Rams asserting themselves as Super Bowl contenders.
We’ve seen plenty of surprises, of course— the Bears and Buccaneers are better than most thought, the Texans and Falcons are worse, and the AFC East is totally upside-down.
But each passing week brings a little more clarity, and our goal is to turn that clarity into actionable insight that leads to profits. Week 3 was a success in that regard, putting us back in the black for the season, and I intend to keep the good times rolling with the following plays:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Chicago Bears
As I type this, the whole world assumes that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the starting QB for the Bucs in Chicago on Sunday, though Dirk Koetter has yet to make it official.
Jameis Winston is back from suspension, but Fitzpatrick has now topped 400 yards passing in three consecutive games, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to do so.
Even though he threw three ugly interceptions in the first half of last week’s loss to Pittsburgh, he got the offense rolling again in the second half, and it’s almost inconceivable that Koetter would disrupt the rhythm that this passing game is in right now.
And I’ve seen some chortling about what may happen to “FitzMagic” in Chicago this week, you know, the “if Pittsburgh had him rattled, wait til he meets Khalil Mack!” sort of thing, but I for one expect Fitz to light it up once again.
I mean, Mack is great and I’m sure he’ll make an impact, but let’s not forget that the Bears feasted on a terrible Arizona offense in Week 3, held a Seattle offense that has been very uninspiring and was without top receiver Doug Baldwin to 17 points in Week 2, and were absolutely shredded by a hobbling Aaron Rodgers in the second half of Green Bay’s comeback win in Week 1.
This week, the Bears could be down to four healthy cornerbacks if Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper are forced to sit— both are injured and have been unable to practice, so it looks like undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver may get his first career start.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster against a Tampa receiving corps that has been among the league’s best through three weeks, with Chris Godwin’s emergence making it a true three-headed monster. And on the other side of the ball, Mitch Trubisky has been rather shaky, frequently missing open receivers and accounting for six turnovers ( 3 INTs, 3 fumbles) and just two passing touchdowns.
The Chicago offense may be improved under first-year coach Matt Nagy, but it’s still not a unit that’s going to instill a whole lot of fear in anybody, and I have serious doubts about the Bears’ ability to keep pace with the high-flying Bucs on Sunday.
Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals
After an 0-3 start that included a dreadful 34-0 loss to the Rams in Week 2, the Cardinals have pulled the plug on the Sam Bradford experiment and are turning to rookie Josh Rosen, who made his NFL debut on Sunday in crunch time, with the Cards down 2 and needing a scoring drive to win.
Rosen came up short, throwing an interception on a 4th-and-5 after driving the team to midfield, and he then threw another interception in the game’s closing seconds that was nullified by a penalty.
I’m certainly not saying we should judge a young player based on a few plays in a highly-pressurized situation, but Rosen had turnover issues throughout his collegiate career at UCLA, with his “gunslinger” mentality leading him to make reckless throws on occasion.
This week, in his first career start, he’ll be going up against the league’s premier free safety in Seattle’s Earl Thomas, who had two interceptions in the Seahawks’ win over Dallas last week— a game in which Seattle allowed just 137 passing yards and sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott five times.
This is a tough spot for Rosen, but the team is apparently ready to deal with the growing pains that are sure to be plentiful— starting on Sunday. As things continue to unravel in Arizona, it will be interesting to see if first-year coach Steve Wilks can provide some answers.
Thrusting Josh Rosen into the lineup in the closing minutes of a close game and then starting him against a divisional opponent with a veteran defense does not seem particularly wise, in my humble opinion.
As for the Seahawks, they’re surely itching to build off a much-needed Week 3 victory, and star wideout Doug Baldwin returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering a sprained knee in the season’s opening game, so it looks like Russell Wilson is going to have his top weapon back.
Wilson could be in for a big day against an Arizona defense that ranks 25th in yards allowed and surrendered over 600 combined passing yards in the team’s first two games, and I think a Seattle blowout is much more likely than an Arizona win here.
Cleveland Browns @ Oakland Raiders
The Browns picked up their first win since 2016 last week, as rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield brought them back from a two-touchdown deficit to defeat the Jets 21-17. It was a glorious debut for Mayfield, who finished the game 17/23 for 201 yards— a statline that would’ve been even better had it not been for a couple of egregious drops.
But it was much more than numbers— from the minute Mayfield entered the game in the second quarter for an injured and ineffective Tyrod Taylor, everything about the Cleveland offense changed.
Yes, some of it was play-calling, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley went with some sets that were very reminiscent of Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offense, but Mayfield brought an undeniable energy and rhythm, continually getting the ball out quickly and on-target.
He’s the man now— Browns coach Hue Jackson made it official this week— and while there are sure to be some struggles and bumps in the road, I don’t think he’ll face much resistance this week. And yes, I’m aware he’ll be making his first NFL start in the “Black Hole” and all that, but he’ll be helped by the fact that Oakland has an awful defense, and no screaming fans or West Coast jet-lag is going to change that.
The Raiders are allowing 27.0 points per game thus far despite two of their three games coming against Denver and Miami, two teams that aren’t exactly known for their explosive offenses. They’re especially bad in the secondary, ranking next-to-last in pass defense DVOA, the stat that has become the go-to amongst analytics nerds and internet GMs.
They also rank last in the NFL in sacks, so if you were to draw up the ideal scenario for a first-time starting QB, it would look something like what Mayfield will be facing this week. His counterpart Derek Carr, meanwhile, will have to deal with a Browns defense that has far exceeded expectations thus far, surrendering 21 points or fewer in all three of their games despite facing the explosive Saints and Steelers offenses.
Cleveland is the better team here, but the utter futility that has engulfed them over the past couple of years has made oddsmakers and bettors understandably gunshy. But I’m here to tell you: it’s Baker Mayfield’s time now, and the Browns are on their way up.
San Francisco 49ers @ L.A. Chargers
It’s difficult to overstate just how devastating the news of Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending torn ACL is for the 49ers; they had just signed him to a monster $137 million contract in the offseason after watching him exceed all expectations in the final few weeks of last season, playing the quarterback position at the highest level it’s been played in San Francisco since the glory days of the 90s.
But now they’re back to C.J. Beathard, the second-year player who seems destined for “journeyman backup” status, and Beathard will have to be more than just a game manager, as the Niners are without top tailback Jerick McKinnon and could be without Matt Breida this week after he sustained a knee injury in last week’s game that has caused him to miss practice.
Breida has been the top player on an offense that was off to a slow with Garoppolo and now threatens to be one of the most inept units in the NFL.
In other words, these Niners are just what the doctor ordered for a Chargers defense that has taken its lumps against some of the NFL’s best offenses, losing shootouts to the Chiefs and Rams.
I expect Melvin Ingram & Co. to take full advantage of this prime “get well” opportunity— we saw last year that this L.A. defense seems to come alive when it senses blood in the water.
That’s part of the reason why the Chargers were involved in so many lopsided games last year, with six of their nine wins coming by 9 points or more.
The other reason they win big so often is because of their tremendous offense, a top-5 unit led by Philip Rivers but also featuring heavy contributions from the Melvin Gordon-led running game.
The balanced and explosive Chargers should slice right through a Niners defense that is allowing nearly 30 points and 385 total yards per game, and I have a strong hunch we’ll see the Bolts notch their first double-digit win of 2018.
*all odds are subject to change