This NFL season is still in its infancy, but the off-field drama, questionable officiating, surprise storylines, devastating injuries, and panicky fanbases are already in full swing. Nothing quite like this time of year, is there?
Week 3 features some intriguing matchups and some wacky numbers— when’s the last time you can remember an NFL team being listed as a 17-point underdog two weeks into the season, as the Bills are this week? And what about the total in the San Francisco/Kansas City game… it’s like something out of the Pac-12, and when you watch the Chiefs play this year you’re reminded of some of those high-flying college offenses. But “normalcy” has never been the way of the NFL— thank goodness— so we may as well enjoy the ride and see if we can profit off of the craziness. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Denver Broncos @ Baltimore Ravens
Line: Baltimore -5.5, 44
Are the Broncos for real? They erased a double-digit 2nd-half deficit to beat Oakland last week and improve to 2-0, but their two wins have come by a grand total of 4 points, and the teams they’ve beaten— the Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks— have a combined record of 0-4 and do not appear to be playoff contenders. Newly-installed quarterback Case Keenum has been decidedly mediocre— 59% completions, 3 TDs, 4 INTs, and a QB rating of 73.7. That’s not what you expect from your $18 million dollar free-agent acquisition, but it mirrors Keenum’s production throughout most of his career, save for his stint in Minnesota last season. His counterpart on Sunday, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, has certainly had his share of ups and downs as well, but a new-look receiving corps appears to have rejuvenated him, as he’s thrown for over 600 combined yards in the team’s first two games and seems primed for a big year. The Denver defense has been solid thus far but it’s clearly not the dominant unit of the past few seasons, particularly in the secondary, so the Ravens will likely spread them out with a heavy dose of 3-receiver sets and let Flacco go to work. The Baltimore defense, meanwhile, is ranked second in the NFL in yards allowed through two games, and though the numbers are skewed a bit thanks to a 47-3 shellacking of Buffalo in Week 1, I do expect a strong performance out of the Ravens D in a home game against the unimpressive Denver offense. With a few extra days to prepare after the Thursday night loss to Cincinnati, I anticipate a bounce-back performance from the Ravens here and a convincing win over a very average Denver team.
Recommendation: Baltimore -5.5 at 1.93
Indianapolis Colts @ Philadelphia Eagles
Line: Philadelphia -7, 47.5
The big storyline out of Philadelphia this week is the triumphant return of Carson Wentz, the franchise QB who has been out since injuring his knee last December. Wentz is back, so the offense will put its early-season struggles behind it and immediately transform back into the juggernaut of last season… at least, that’s the tune that optimistic Eagles fans are singing. But the reality may be a little messier— Wentz hasn’t seen live action in 9 months and he’ll be working with a decimated receiving corps, as go-to wideout Alshon Jeffery is expected to miss his third consecutive game with a shoulder injury and free agent acquisition Mike Wallace is out indefinitely after fracturing his fibula last week. The Philly defense has issues of its own after getting torched by Tampa’s Ryan Fitzpatrick last week to the tune of 402 passing yards and 4 TDs, and things won’t get any easier this week when Andrew Luck comes to town, as Luck has hit the ground running after missing all of last season and is fresh off leading the Colts to an upset win in Washington. The Indianapolis defense has exceeded expectations thus far and was positively stingy last week, holding the Redskins without a touchdown and limiting them to just 65 rushing yards on 22 attempts, so I’d be very surprised if Wentz and the Eagles were just able to sprint up and down the field here. No, I think this will be a much tougher game for the home team than many are anticipating, and 7 points seems like a bit much in this situation.
Recommendation: Indianapolis +7 at 1.89
Green Bay Packers @ Washington Redskins
Line: Green Bay -3, 45.5
Let’s be clear about one thing: Aaron Rodgers is hurt. Anyone who watched Green Bay’s 29-29 tie with Minnesota last week could see that Rodgers wasn’t himself, as his mobility was clearly limited with the large brace on his left knee and he was unable to escape the pocket and do damage, which is normally one of the qualities that makes him so dangerous. Plus, he hasn’t been practicing this week and has spoken openly about the injury with the media, conveying his concern that it will worsen as the season progresses. Of course, Rodgers at 70% or even 60% is better than what the Packers have in reserve, as we saw in Week 1 when he departed late in the 1st half and DeShone Kizer came in for a couple of forgettable series. But the Packers are average at best defensively, and with a hobbled Rodgers they strike me as a very vulnerable team as they go on the road to face Washington this week. The Skins are coming off a tough loss to Indianapolis, but they actually out-gained the Colts in the game and Alex Smith played fairly well, going 33/46 for 292 yards and no turnovers. And though the sample size is admittedly small, the Washington defense has been a pleasant surprise, ranking first in the league in yards allowed and second in points allowed through two games. Bottom line: a gimpy Aaron Rodgers is the only thing keeping the Redskins from being a solid favorite in this game. Rodgers is great, but he’ll be facing a confident defense and a Washington team that’s probably better than most realize. I like the Skins here.
Recommendation: Washington +3 at 1.85
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Line: Pittsburgh -1.5, 53.5
Entering the season, Pittsburgh was expected to be a Super Bowl contender, while the Bucs were almost unanimously projected to finish last in the NFC South. Well, after two weeks Tampa Bay has put together the most impressive resume in the NFL, beating New Orleans on the road and then taking care of defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia last week, delivering the Eagles their first loss since Week 17 of last year. Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been a revelation, topping 400 yards passing in back-to-back weeks and throwing 8 TD passes and just one interception. And if you’re one of those who is waiting for the clock to strike midnight on Fitzpatrick, you may be waiting awhile— yes, he’s been a backup for the past couple of seasons, but he’s just three years removed from throwing for 3,900 yards and 31 TDs with the Jets, so he’s not your average backup. Plus, in his 14-year career he’s never had a receiving corps like he has now, with the unguardable Mike Evans lining up opposite speedster DeSean Jackson, and explosive 2nd-year man Chris Godwin also in the mix. Fitzpatrick and Co. are surely licking their chops at the thought of facing a Steelers defense that surrendered a whopping six TD passes to young Kansas City signal-caller Patrick Mahomes last week. Let’s face it: the Pittsburgh defense is bad, and it’s probably not going to get much better anytime soon. There are no reinforcements on the way. That puts even more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and the offense, a unit that is still elite but badly misses All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell and is now dealing with fresh drama after Antonio Brown’s sideline outburst and subsequent “Trade Me” tweet. These are two teams moving in opposite directions, but we’re early enough in the season so that preseason expectations are still heavily affecting lines— people have not yet adjusted to the new reality. That creates opportunity for those who are paying attention.
Recommendation: Tampa Bay moneyline at 2.1