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Week 7 NFL Picks: For Defenses, There’s Nothing Jolly About Old England

International games aren’t going away — and that means an increasingly skewed product for fans and teams alike

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

We’ve got one of those early London kickoffs this week. Next week, too. You probably didn’t know this, because no one does — the teams playing in these games are barely aware.

A 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff is the NFL’s version of the person who shows up 30 minutes before a party is set to start. It’s alarming. It breaks all social norms. The host isn’t ready. The damn plates from the night before are still out. But you know what? The early arriver is usually nice and almost always brings beer. And the early kickoffs help the NFL create more game inventory and new revenue streams: The league sold last year’s Jaguars-Bills game to Yahoo, for instance.

If you don’t like pairing breakfast and football, too bad. USA Today reports that the NFL is still contemplating a game in China in 2018 (just wait for that time zone difference) and the league is considering staging games in Germany as early as next year. Brazil is also on the table. Jets president Neil Glat predicted that at some point, every team will play one “home” game on foreign soil. Roger Goodell has floated the idea that a Super Bowl could be played in London. You know how West Coast teams sometimes struggle on the East Coast? Well, that’s minor compared to what may be coming. If you think you’re tired when you wake up for these games, remember that the players have it worse.

The consequences of an expanded international slate would be massive. Already, six teams a year play in London. One of those is the Jaguars, so five of them theoretically compete for playoff spots. If all 32 franchises are forced to play abroad at some point, we’ll be able to chalk up a win, in most cases, to the team built to score points. And that could spell a major competitive issue for the game.

If international NFL play sometimes seems like a different sport, that’s because it is: Defenses apparently don’t make the trip abroad. The “over” on the over/under has hit on three straight and eight of the last 10, meaning London game participants have consistently scored more points than Vegas thought they would. After an awful 13–10 Giants-Dolphins game in the inaugural London matchup in 2007, scores exploded, and a winning team hasn’t scored fewer than 20 points since. In eight of the last 10 London games, at least one team has reached 30 points (the average NFL team scores 23 points per game).

This might seem surprising, but it actually makes sense. While an offense can run a play to the opposite side of its tired player, a defense’s jet-lagged men will be exploited repeatedly. Plenty of defensive backs and linebackers are a step slow after a 10-hour flight, and when that happens, opposing coaches can spot it and go after those players all day.

There’s been plenty of talk about how stateside NFL games are boring and poorly played this year. Perhaps every game should be shipped to London, where offensive teams have an advantage in the NFL’s new, jet-setting reality.

On Sunday, this will favor the New York Giants, who have Odell Beckham Jr. It will not favor the Los Angeles Rams, who have Case Keenum. Jeff Fisher has attempted to build a team around defense and winning low-scoring matchups with a conservative offense. Maybe they should try to stay stateside for a while.

Now, on to the picks (home teams in CAPS):

N.Y. Giants (-3) over LOS ANGELES (London)

Eli Manning is definitely the only star NFL quarterback who would get into a battle over his usage of “you.” This week, Manning went on the radio and said “you” can get tired of Odell Beckham Jr.’s sideline antics. Some in the media thought “you” meant him, but he meant the media!

“I’m not tired of it,” Manning clarified. “Thought y’all might get tired of it. That was my comment. It’s up to you, and maybe thought it was me. But I’m talking about you.”

Odell’s most recent antics included 222 yards receiving last week against the Ravens and three touchdowns in his last two games. He’s prone to hot streaks. Remember, he followed up bad performances against the Eagles and Cowboys last October with six straight 100-yard games, a stretch that included eight touchdowns. It’s a good bet that as long as his hip injury isn’t serious, the explosiveness he showed against Baltimore will be sustainable. Even with Aaron Donald starring and continuing his run as one of the best defensive players in the league, the Rams’ D has been surprisingly average this season. The Giants will make them look average again.

You can count on it. And by you I mean me.

KANSAS CITY (-6) over New Orleans

We’ve reached Peak Alex Smith. The career-long scouting report on Smith has been that he’s accurate and productive but can’t throw deep. He’s responded by getting more accurate (his 67.4 completion percentage is his best since arriving in Kansas City in 2013) and throwing shorter (his passes are going for 1.3 fewer yards per catch than last year, and he’s on pace for his worst mark in that category in seasons in which he started the majority of his team’s games). The Chiefs’ commitment to dominating short-yard situations is unparalleled: Last week against the Raiders, they ran a goal-line play that resulted in 346-pound defensive lineman Dontari Poe scoring a touchdown. (It was called “Hungry Pig Right.”)

Even Smith might be able to stretch the field against the Saints, however, because the best anyone can say about their defense right now is that its not one of the worst of all time, a legitimate upgrade from last year. They’re 23rd in yards per pass attempt allowed and 22nd in yards per rush attempt allowed. They’re just bad — but by their recent standards, that’s good! I’m counting on Alex Smith to Alex Smith his way to more Alex Smith results (in a 24–13 win in which he throws two touchdowns and no interceptions, obviously).

Minnesota (-3) over PHILADELPHIA

Somehow this game has become a referendum on the value of knowing the contents of a playbook. “One guy has my entire playbook,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. He’s talking about Sam Bradford, who played for the Eagles until a surprising preseason trade to the Vikings. Pederson said he’ll tweak some things to guard against Bradford sharing too much. Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer downplayed the significance of this because — and this is real — he said he’s flipped through pages of playbooks left behind in opposing locker rooms: “People have left stuff in locker rooms when they’ve played us before and I’ve looked at it and I can’t even decipher it.” Zimmer is leaving himself open to an Operation Mincemeat–style deception, because now an opponent can mess with his head by leaving behind a fake but decipherable playbook. Zimmer also admitted to asking Bradford about the Eagles’ playbook, because it’s not a shameful thing to admit: It’s standard operating procedure when a player faces his old team.

This seems to be obscuring the fact that the Vikings should blow out the Eagles. Minnesota is coming off of a bye, has the best defense in football, and gets to face a quarterback, Carson Wentz, who’s still going through some growing pains and is coming off his worst game as a pro.

TENNESSEE (-3) over Indianapolis

This week, Pro Football Focus argued that Marcus Mariota might be holding the Titans back. Even that possibility is a stunning development for a team that was supposed to be Mariota-or-bust. As PFF noted, the offensive line and running game have taken a huge jump, while Mariota is making “rookie mistake[s]” in his second year. Mike Mularkey, long criticized because he’s a bad coach, looks like a genius for building a ground-and-pound offense that seems to limit the damage Mariota could inflict with his errors. But Mariota isn’t a write-off: He still creates enough plays with his legs that he’ll never be an outright disaster, and that’s a recipe for winning the worst division in football.

Speaking of the worst division in football, Chuck Pagano said he’s “encouraged” by the Colts’ loss to the Houston Texans last week. He noted that he thinks the Colts are a “three-quarter team. We gotta figure out a way to become a four-quarter team.” That’s false, because the Colts struggle mightily in the first quarter, too, having scored just one touchdown in that period all season. What a team. Colts owner Jim Irsay reiterated this week that he has “full confidence” in the Pagano–Ryan Grigson brain trust, but this team is 2–4 and has looked worse than that at points. As linebacker Erik Walden said:

N.Y. JETS (pick ’em) over Baltimore

Let’s check in with the Jets locker room:

A ringing endorsement ahead of a matchup between two teams that don’t know the two certainties of football: (1) Father Time is undefeated, and (2) Ryan Mallett and Geno Smith are not viable quarterbacks.

Both of these teams spent big money on older veterans, but in the NFL, life comes at you fast. Consider: Darrelle Revis is counting $17 million against the cap.

The Ravens, meanwhile, have more than $50 million in expensive vets on the injury report, including Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Steve Smith, Marshal Yanda, and Devin Hester. Sending old people to do a job they used to do well is called “Space Cowboys,” which was a decent movie but is not a sound football strategy. The Ravens are far less entertaining.

So are the Jets, which brings us to our tweet of the week, from reader Brandon:

MIAMI (+3) over Buffalo

Who knew Adam Gase the Hardass would emerge so quickly and so effectively? The Dolphins cut two prominent offensive linemen and retooled their secondary after Week 5 — a highly unusual tactic — and promptly blew out the damn Steelers. Now it emerges that Jay Ajayi, last seen regaining his job and rushing for 204 yards against Pittsburgh, had previously been phased out because Gase thought his ego was too big after he mailed in a preseason game.

Gase emerging as an effective leader is welcome news for Dolphins fans after the team took the unusual step of playing the last four years without a head coach. Wait, I’m sorry, it says here that Joe Philbin coached the team starting in 2012. Huh. Anyway, in addition to getting more aggressive, Gase has been vigorously defending Ryan Tannehill all year, and it paid off last Sunday. Best of all, he’s building trust by listening to his players:

Adam Gase: legitimate NFL coach?

DETROIT (-1) over Washington

One of the best anecdotes from last season is that Matthew Stafford didn’t know how to address “Jim Bob Cooter.” Could he shorten it to “Jim” or “Bob”? The answer was no, he could not. Jim Bob Cooter, one of the best offensive coordinators in football, goes by Jim Bob, thank you.

He’s also become more than a punch line (although his name remains hilarious) and is responsible for unprecedented levels of Stafford hype bubbling up this year. Peter Schrager on the NFL Network called Stafford possibly the best quarterback in the NFL, citing his plus-27 TD/INT differential since Week 10 of last season. Cooter said Stafford’s 61-yard bomb to Golden Tate last week was almost “no-look.” Yet Stafford remains underrated. The QB’s MVP odds are still a baffling 100-to-1, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Stafford goes on a run that propels the Lions above the Packers in NFC wild-card contention.

Perhaps this is the year of the “pretty good” quarterback: The sometimes-maligned Matt Ryan is busy making the Falcons great, and here comes Stafford. Joe Flacco could not be reached for comment.

Cleveland (+10) over CINCINNATI

What a year in Cleveland. The Cavs won the championship, the Indians are in the World Series, and the Browns have covered two of their last three road games.

Plus, Hue Jackson might be a better coach than Marvin Lewis at this point. Lewis is an incredible coach who has built the Bengals into a perennial contender, but he’s been terrible this season and conceded, “I miss the hell” out of Jackson, his former offensive coordinator. He also admitted that he talked to Jackson about staying as part of a coach-in-waiting deal. For Lewis’s sake, it’s a good thing Jackson didn’t agree, because, uh, the waiting period may have ended sooner than anyone anticipated given how badly the 2–4 Bengals have played.

Oakland (pick ’em) over JACKSONVILLE

The big news in Jacksonville is that Gus Bradley, in his fourth year of watching Jaguars football, is angry. Lineman Kelvin Beachum said that during the coach’s speech in the team’s game against the Bears, “I thought [Bradley] was going to have a heart attack.” I could not imagine watching as much Jaguars football as Bradley has and waiting until now to snap. But here we are.

Bradley actually has less to be angry about than usual, because the Jaguars have now won two in a row. They did that once last year, never in 2014, and had a incredible three-game win streak in 2013 that featured two wins against the Texans in three weeks. (The AFC South!) Sadly for Jags fans, I don’t think this is the start of one of those “streaks.” The Raiders’ running game, led by a potentially healthy Latavius Murray, will be too much to overcome. Normally, the home team would have the edge with a West Coast club visiting for a 1 p.m. game, but Bradley is 0–5 against teams from the AFC West or NFC West in Jacksonville.

San Diego (+6.5) over ATLANTA

Unlike Matt Ryan, who’s enjoying a career renaissance in his 30s thanks to a good defense and a rejuvenated running game, Philip Rivers can’t seem to catch a break. Like Ryan, Rivers had a dominant receiver, but Keenan Allen was lost for the season in Week 1. Rivers hasn’t played with a top-10 defense since 2010, when he was 29, and there’s little hope that’ll change this year.

Still, we should appreciate Rivers, who, as former Chargers doctor David Chao points out, once missed less than a week with the same injury that is now set to keep Ben Roethlisberger out for at least a month.

Rivers is underratedly tough, and that’s why I think he’ll keep this close or even pull off the upset. Atlanta is coming off an emotional loss that featured an obvious missed pass-interference and lots of unhinged anger.

Outcomes like that take a toll.

Tampa Bay (-1) over SAN FRANCISCO

Hey, remember when Chip Kelly almost left Oregon for the Bucs? It would have been a great what-if. Would Josh Freeman have looked good? Where would Greg Schiano, who took the Bucs job instead, have ended up?

Well, it may have been the rare transaction that worked for nobody (the opposite of the Vikings’ trade for Sam Bradford) because Kelly might be in the mix for some college jobs as his second NFL gig sputters. There will be a lot of good jobs open (LSU for sure, maybe Texas, maybe Oregon!) and Kelly can use the experience of coaching this 49ers roster as a selling point, since it’s basically an additional year of coaching nonprofessional football. San Francisco is terrible, Tampa Bay is less terrible. Jameis wins, then maybe tours Stanford, the school he wishes he attended.

New England (-8) over PITTSBURGH

There are a number of reasons that NFL ratings have dropped, but one is simply bad luck, as this game shows. This game should be a ratings magnet, but: Surprise, NFL, you get Landry Jones! As mentioned, Roethlisberger’s torn meniscus could keep him out for more than a month. Jones, his replacement, is not exciting, for the Steelers or for viewers: He once threw for 168 yards in a win over the Cardinals and another time threw for 209 yards with two picks and a touchdown in a 23–13 loss to Kansas City. He is also 27 and not considered the starter of the future. The only intrigue here is whether Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates can make it the whole game without crying after their 15th straight wide-open deep route doesn’t amount to anything. New England wins big, even on the road.

Actually, there’s one more area of intrigue: seeing how Bill Belichick reacts now that he’s in the post-tablet era. “As you probably noticed, I’m done with the tablets,” he said this week. “They’re just too undependable for me.” That means Belichick will have to get printed pictures on the sideline. One thing he’ll have to prepare for: if those pictures look like a jumbled, unfocused mess, figuring out if it’s a tech problem or just the Steelers offense under Jones.

Seattle (+2) over ARIZONA

One interesting wrinkle of the social media era is players producing, on their own, what the kids call receipts. Richard Sherman tweeted (then deleted) supposed evidence that Julio Jones interfered with him on last week’s controversial no-call pass interference play. The Titans’ Antonio Andrews actually did something similar, posting an Instagram video of a blindside hit that sent the Browns’ Jordan Poyer to the hospital, a hit Andrews insisted was legal. (He did not apologize for putting the video up). This is the natural outcome of players being able to speak directly to fans: They’re going to argue their own case. Even though he deleted the tweet, Sherman, one of the smartest athletes in the game, may be starting a trend. Don’t call the league, don’t tell your coach: Tell your followers.

Anyway, on to the game. The Cardinals are clicking, but the key to beating the Seahawks is being able to put up some points, and Carson Palmer still can’t throw deep. The 6.3-yards-per-reception mark he posted against the Jets last week is terrible. The Seahawks game-plan to keep everything in front of them, make their tackles, and limit yards after catch. That’s their ideal. If the Cardinals are aiming for their usual strategy … look out. Seahawks big.

Houston (+9) over DENVER

John Elway said in August that Brock Osweiler was “a little bent out of shape” about being replaced by Peyton Manning last year. That means going back to Manning was even more valuable than originally thought: The Broncos won the Super Bowl and pissed off Osweiler enough for him to bail and go be mediocre with Houston for $72 million. Elway has been sort of gloating since it became obvious that Osweiler isn’t particularly good.

Here’s the problem: Trevor Siemian might not be particularly good, either. Siemian had one outstanding game, against the Bengals on September 25. Take that away, and he has a total of three touchdowns and three interceptions. Last week, his passes averaged 4.6 yards per reception. The best that can be said for Siemian is that he’s not making $72 million. Neither quarterback is particularly good, which means this will be a defensive struggle. That means it’ll be close. Prediction: Broncos win, but fail to cover. Osweiler will be a little bent out of shape.

Last week’s record: 4–9–2

Overall record: 40–47–4