From free agency, to the waiver system, to the salary cap, to the draft, the NFL is set up to promote parity.
They want every fan base to feel like their team has a genuine chance to succeed every year, and for the most part, the system works, as we see worst-to-first teams (and the reverse) nearly every season. And as we look at the league as it presently stands, parity is the word that comes to mind.
There are no longer any winless teams after Arizona took care of business in San Francisco last week, and though the Rams and Chiefs may have separated themselves a bit at the top (for now, anyway), picking the “next best” team or teams is not so straightforward.
They say it’s an Any Given Sunday league, and the NFL gives us proof of that on a weekly basis.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to pick through the slate and come up with a few winners— something we’ve failed miserably at over the past two weeks.
It’s a long season, though, and I have a hunch that we’ll get back on the winning track with these four plays:
Carolina Panthers @ Washington Redskins, Sunday 14th October: 18:00
After a Monday night performance that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons — namely, Drew Brees leading the Saints to 43 points and throwing just three incompletions in 29 attempts en route to breaking the NFL’s all-time passing yards record— the Redskins now return home to face the 3-1 Panthers.
The Panthers squeaked by the Giants 33-31 last week after kicker Graham Gano made an incredible 63-yard field goal as time expired.
Carolina’s offense has been predictably run-heavy, leading the league in rushing yards per game but ranking 25th in pass yards per game, and they may be in for a tough matchup here against a Washington defense that has been stingy against the run, surrendering just 92.5 yards per game— 6th-best in the NFL.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their already banged-up offensive line may take another hit this week if Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil is unable to play after leaving last week’s game with a shoulder/neck injury.
Remember, the Redskins had played very well defensively prior to last week, allowing just 44 combined points in their previous three games, and no one would ever confuse the Carolina offense with the machine-like Saints.
I expect a strong showing from the Washington D here, and on the other side of the ball, Redskins quarterback Alex Smith should find room to operate against a generous Carolina secondary that ranks 26th against the pass, surrendering better than 280 yards per game through the air.
Expect a bounce-back performance from a Washington team that’s better than it showed last week.
Arizona Cardinals @ Minnesota Vikings, Sunday 14th October, 18:00
The Cardinals broke through with a win last week, defeating division-rival San Francisco 28-18 in a game they controlled throughout.
The 49ers were shorthanded, however, especially after losing Matt Breida — the team’s best offensive player this season — to an ankle injury in the first half.
Even though it must’ve felt great to get a win after starting the year 0-4, there were still warning signs for the Cards, the most prominent being rookie quarterback Josh Rosen’s performance — 10/25 passing for 170 yards, with nearly half the yardage coming on a 75-yard touchdown pass to Christian Kirk on the team’s first offensive play.
It’s important to remember that the San Francisco defense has been porous this season, surrendering 29.2 points per game and allowing 1,011 combined passing yards in the three games prior to facing Rosen.
Now the Cardinals travel to Minnesota to face a Vikings team with Super Bowl aspirations— aspirations that have been revived after last week’s crucial 23-21 win in Philadelphia.
The Vikings defense has been nearly as bad as San Francisco’s statistically, but nearly everyone believes that’s an aberration, considering it’s a veteran unit that has been among the league’s best for the past couple of years.
A situation like this — a home game against a 1-4 team that’s starting a rookie quarterback who’s completing less than 50% of his passes — is just what the doctor ordered for a defence and a team that’s beginning to regain its form, and you know Mike Zimmer won’t let his team forget the embarrassing Week 3 loss to Buffalo, so lack of focus and/or intensity shouldn’t be a problem here.
And we haven’t even mentioned the improved Minnesota offense, which is showing elements of explosiveness behind Kirk Cousins’ 321 pass yards per game.
This is an obvious mismatch— a severe beating is the likeliest outcome.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Dallas Cowboys, Sunday 14th October, 21:25
When it comes to Jacksonville, most will rightfully focus on the defense, a brash, physical unit that may be the league’s best.
Even in last week’s blowout loss to Kansas City, the defense played fairly well, picking off Patrick Mahomes twice and generally holding the explosive Chiefs offense in check.
The Jags simply couldn’t overcome their own offense, as Blake Bortles threw four interceptions, including a ghastly pick-six when backed up deep in his own territory and an equally-bad red-zone interception that bounced off an offensive lineman’s helmet prior to careening into the hands of a defender.
Despite occasional flashes of competence, Bortles has become somewhat known for these comically bad plays throughout his 5-year career, and when you look at the current state of the Jacksonville offense, there’s not a whole lot that inspires confidence.
Star running back Leonard Fournette is still out with a hamstring injury, leading the team to sign the fossilized remains of Jamaal Charles this week, and the banged-up o-line, which was abysmal against Kansas City, may be in even worse shape come Sunday, as three starters have been held out of practice this week.
The Dallas defense, meanwhile, has been rock-solid even without anchor Sean Lee, ranking in the top-10 in total yards allowed, points allowed, and yards per play allowed.
It’s going to be tough sledding for the Jacksonville offense on Sunday.
Of course, the same could be said for the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys offense, as it’s always tough to move the ball against the Jags.
If the Jacksonville defense has a weakness, however, it’s stopping the run — specifically, a between-the-tackles, power running game.
We saw a couple of teams exploit this weakness last year, and this season the Jags rank a mediocre 14th against the run, surrendering better than 100 rushing yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry.
Hellooooo, Ezekiel Elliott. With Zeke grinding out the tough yards and the defense ready to pounce on Bortles mistakes, I think the ‘Boys are a good value here as a 3-point home dog.’
Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots, Monday 15th October, 01:20
Sunday’s late game is clearly the marquee game of the week, as the undefeated Chiefs head to Foxboro to face Tom Brady and the resurgent Patriots.
The term “resurgent” may sound a little silly when referring to New England, the NFL’s Evil Empire, but we must remember that just two weeks ago the Pats were 1-2, having lost to Jacksonville and Detroit by 27 combined points.
People were wondering (for the 652nd time) if it was the end of the road for the Brady/Belichick dynasty, but that talk was quickly silenced after the Patriots won back-to-back games by 45 combined points.
The offense has finally come alive now that Brady has some more weapons at his disposal, with Julian Edelman returning from a 4-game suspension last week and the newly-signed Josh Gordon making an instant impact despite limited playing time.
Gordon’s role figures to increase with each passing week, and now, with the receiving corps solidified, Rob Gronkowski healthy, and the emergence of rookie tailback Sony Michel as the all-purpose threat that the team surely envisioned when they selected him in the 1st round of April’s draft, the New England offense feels dangerous again.
We saw them slice up the Colts last week, putting up 38 points and 438 yards on a defense that has exceeded expectations this season, and now they get a shot at the struggling Chiefs D, a unit that ranks dead-last in the NFL in yards allowed and has surrendered 88 combined points in three road games.
Of course, the Chiefs have been able to overcome a leaky defense because their own offense has been so good, ranking 4th in the league in yards per game and 2nd in points scored, but the Pats have a veteran defense that seems to have found something over the past couple of weeks, and though Patrick Mahomes has been brilliant this season, we must keep in mind that this is just his 7th career NFL start.
Growing pains are coming, it’s only a matter of when and how severe.
But it’s not like New England is going to be able to shut down Mahomes & Co… no, this one will be a shootout, as you might expect with such a big total (60 at the time of this writing).
The way I see it, however, we have an opportunity to back a suddenly-rolling Patriots offense in a primetime home game against the NFL’s worst defense.
Mahomes or no Mahomes, this is going to be a tough one for the Chiefs to pull out.
*all odds are subject to change