The past few weeks have been defined by underwhelming prime-time games, sloppy play, and ensuing discussion over whether the NFL is getting less watchable. The league and some media members have countered that it’s all in our heads. Of course, that’s a fruitless argument, since watchability is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone who goes to the Guggenheim Museum is going to get Composition XI, and not everyone is going to appreciate a 6–6 tie between the Seahawks and Cardinals.
The truth is probably somewhere in between what each camp is suggesting, but the league could undeniably use a little more fun. The aforementioned Cardinals-Seahawks game delivered one bit of fun, because one play was, conservatively, the best thing that’s ever happened: Bobby Wagner jumped over a long snapper. This week, Bruce Arians dubbed the move “bad for football” and said that the competition committee reviewed that type of play last year because officials wanted it eliminated due to the difficulty with legislating it.
The Wagner play was bad for football in the same way that Mad Max: Fury Road was bad for movies: It highlighted that every other film has zero flame-throwing guitars. Wagner should be allowed to leap, but we shouldn’t stop there. The competition committee should amend rules to add fun to the game, not strip it out. Here are a few suggestions. Remember: One small leap for Bobby Wagner, one giant leap for fun in football.
Punish Teams That Punt
We can’t make NFL coaches less conservative by showing them the data. For years, they’ve had data that support going for it on fourth-and-short, yet they’ve largely remained unmoved. Sixty-three times already this season, a team has punted on fourth down with 5 or fewer yards to go inside the opponent’s half of the field or at the 50-yard line. That’s insanity. Luckily, there’s been a crumb of justice: 12 times, those teams have punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback. The Giants have done it on both of their attempts. But a touchback isn’t enough of a deterrent. Teams that touch back on a punt should have the ball placed at the 35 instead of the 20. That’d solve it.
I’d actually like to ask for more punitive measures for a touch back on a punt, such as instant termination of the head coach. But I’m being realistic.
Change the Roster Rules
Why was Arizona’s 28–3 win over the Jets two weeks ago so depressing? Ryan Fitzpatrick was awful, but he was replaced by Geno Smith, who’s also bad. The Jets had no other choice, because as of now, only 46 of the 53 players on an NFL roster are active on game day. Third- and fourth-string quarterbacks Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg were inactive, depriving the Jets of the opportunity for reckless experimentation.
ALL players on the roster should become active in the fourth quarter. Inserting younger players (even if they’re bad, which Petty and Hackenberg surely are) for a few plays in a blowout would introduce a curiosity factor, and at least give fans something to watch.
I’d also expand rosters to include practice squad players in December.
Shorten the Play Clock
This is a simple solution to limit time-wasting with two minutes to go. It’s also another way to save coaches, who will have almost certainly blown their timeouts by this point, from themselves. Teams should get 30 seconds, not 40 seconds, to snap the ball in the fourth quarter. It would make epic comebacks easier to come by, enhance the pace of play, and give Tom Brady less time to yell “Trump” and “Clinton” at the line.
Let Bobby Wagner Leap
This one’s self explanatory. The Seahawks play four more prime-time games this year. Tell me you aren’t tuning in for the leaping field-goal-blocker guy. Almost as good as Mad Max.
And now, on to the picks (home team in CAPS).
Washington (+3) over CINCINNATI (London)
One of the best things about these London games is that the travel and free time teaches us so much about the players. For example, we know that Calvin Pace took in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 on the Jets’ flight last year; Redskins defensive back Will Blackmon thinks the castle he stayed in the last time he played in England is haunted; and Brandon Marshall loves antiquing. This week, we’re learning about Kirk Cousins’s fierce commitment to avoiding jet lag. To prep for the five-hour time zone change, Cousins is going to bed early this week and wearing sunglasses at night. In general, it was a week of sharing for Cousins:
Anyway … about this game. The Redskins are banged up, and the most vital injury is to Josh Norman, who, if healthy enough to return from his concussion, would face a crucial matchup with A.J. Green. If Norman’s out or limited, Green will have a big day. I’m not ruling out a one- or two-point win for the Bengals, but Cousins is resting up while his opponents stay awake until a normal hour, and that could make all the difference.
Also: In honor of the now defunct Vine, I’m offering up the best one for each of this week’s games. Enjoy:
Seattle (-3) over NEW ORLEANS
The Saints are 2–4 overall, but they’ve covered four of their past five games. Though Drew Brees is doing Drew Brees things, averaging a league-high 350 passing yards per game, the weekly results hinge on whether the defense is “really, really bad” or just “really bad.” The Saints are 2–1 (and three points from being 3–0) when the defense creates a turnover, and 0–3 when it doesn’t. A few picks or fumbles can give Brees a little breathing room when he inevitably posts 30 points in a shootout.
Forcing those mistakes won’t be easy against a Seattle team that hasn’t turned the ball over in three games, though. Neither will shutting down former Saint Jimmy Graham, who could run wild against his old team. When Brees tries to match, Richard Sherman and Co. should be ready:
INDIANAPOLIS (+3) over Kansas City
The Colts are casting themselves as underdogs, and while it’s nice to see them searching for motivation, it does lead to things like this:
If the Colts need to crawl back against anyone, it’s themselves. And they do seem to be overcoming their own flawed design slightly better these days. They’re improving at protecting Andrew Luck, with Greg Cosell noting this week that they’re leaving six or seven guys in to protect the QB, and have at points played three tight ends just to keep Luck on his feet. It’s working, as Luck has been sacked only five times in the past two games, a miracle for this Colts team. In the two games before that, he was sacked 11 times.
Luck is also finding those tight ends and his wideouts deep. TE Jack Doyle, whom punter Pat McAfee calls the “Chuck Norris of the NFL,” is becoming a cult figure in Indianapolis, while talented receiver Donte Moncrief is likely to play Sunday for the first time since Week 2. If the Colts really have found the formula for protecting Luck, they’ll just have to fix that horrendous defense, and they’ll be set.
Arizona (+3) over CAROLINA
The NFL has gotten a lot of heat for this year’s putrid prime-time slate, but the league did us a solid here by moving this contest to the 1 p.m. window and shifting Green Bay–Atlanta to the 4 p.m. national slot. Cardinals-Panthers, a rematch of last season’s NFC title game, isn’t what we expected it to be. Instead of a heavyweight bout to determine the NFC favorite heading into the playoffs, it’s a matchup of two teams trying to save their seasons. Most of the talk this week is about whether Bruce Arians or Cam Newton wears better hats. (The answer is Newton.)
The Panthers don’t appear to be a “good team playing poorly,” because there’s currently no evidence that they can get better. And even with Newton now fully healthy, their fatal flaw remains: They give up 13.4 yards per catch, tied for worst in the league. The Cardinals still have some hope, but if they can’t torch Carolina on Sunday, we’ll know for sure that Carson Palmer and the passing attack have lost the ability to hit the deep pass.
CLEVELAND (+3) over NY JETS
ESPN’s Todd McShay said this week that the upcoming crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks is not good. That would be very bad news for the Jets and Browns in any year, since they’re perpetually looking for passers, but it’s particularly concerning this year. Consider: This week, Brandon Marshall wore a “Fitz Magic” T-shirt to support Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s thrown six touchdowns and 11 interceptions on the year. The Harvard man went on a rant after last week’s game, calling out basically everyone in the organization for losing faith in him. Yet the Jets still have to start him, because the backup competition is between Hackenberg and Petty now that Smith is out with a torn ACL. Coach Todd Bowles, Rich Cimini wrote, “doesn’t want to hand either one the backup job; he wants them to earn it.” He may be waiting a while.
In Cleveland, Josh McCown is now healthy after missing time with a broken collarbone. Cody Kessler is in concussion protocol, which means McCown and Kevin Hogan are the Browns’ options. The World Series starts at 8 p.m. that night, Cleveland. I think there may be a pre-pre-pregame show you can watch instead.
HOUSTON (-2.5) over Detroit
Matthew Stafford is angry: “I’ve had 5,000-yard seasons and 40 touchdowns, and didn’t sniff the Pro Bowl for it,” he said, recounting his many slights. While the quarterback is enjoying a breakout season, the Lions are still in kind of a weird place. They’ve won three in a row, yet no one seems to believe that they’ll overcome the Packers’ superior depth and health to move to second in the division and possibly grab a playoff spot. Hell, there’s a report this week about who might replace Jim Caldwell.
I sense a slip-up coming. All of the Lions’ games have been within one score at some point in the fourth quarter, which is true for just six other teams. The Texans, meanwhile, rank 29th in offense this season, and their general manager is saying they’re inconsistent because they have so many young players. That’s nonsensical, since their quarterback and running back are already on second contracts and their star wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, is established as one of the game’s greats. Still, I’m picking the Texans because I think they’ll respond after Monday night’s Denver debacle.
New England (-6) over BUFFALO
It’s World Series time, so let’s get excited about a baseball-style unwritten-rules controversy! The Bills are still mad that the Patriots jogged into their sideline during warm-ups the last time these squads played, an incident which led Buffalo to rough up Malcolm Mitchell and quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Buffalo’s Nickell Robey-Coleman said they’ll do it again if the Patriots try to jog near them. “There ain’t no other way around that situation,” he said “You know, just respect each others’ sideline.”
This may seem like a particularly low-stakes feud, but the Bills use this sort of stuff to get fired up for the Patriots. And last time it worked, as Buffalo won 16–0. The Patriots, meanwhile, remain unmoved. When asked whether he’s instructed his team to avoid jogging on the other sideline, Bill Belichick responded: “Well, if that’s their opinion then that’s their opinion.” Huh.
This has all the makings of a classic Belichick blowout game. The Bills were able to get into Brissett’s head last time, but now Tom Brady is back. When the younger brother gets pushed around and goes to get his older brother, things change.
Oakland (Pick ’Em) over TAMPA BAY
I have so many questions about the below video, in which TMZ accosts Rich Gannon in midtown Manhattan and asks him if the Raiders are going to move. The camera guy is sprinting in midtown to catch up with Rich Gannon! Like he’s Beyoncé! As I write, this video has fewer than 1,000 views, and I think I may account for all of them. The internet is a deep, dark place.
Anyway, the Raiders played in Jacksonville last Sunday and practiced in Florida all week, while the Bucs played in San Francisco last week and had to travel cross-country to get home. The Bucs have won two in a row, one over a Newton-less Panthers team and one over a rudderless 49ers group that doesn’t have any good players to miss. Tampa Bay is 3–3 and shockingly in the hunt in the NFC South. However, the Raiders are legitimately good. And their pass yardage conceded has improved as the year has gone on: The 419 yards they gave up against the Saints and the 389 they surrendered against the Falcons appear to be isolated incidents, as they’ve given up more than 300 yards only once since. They’ll be able to stop Jameis Winston.
San Diego (+4.5) over DENVER
Joey Bosa is entering mind-blowing territory:
It’s not insane to say that some of the Chargers’ last-second early-season losses would have swung the other way if Bosa had been on the field to issue some pressure; the 3–4 Chargers could easily be 5–2 had he gotten to camp early, gotten in shape, and started the season healthy. Instead, he first saw game action on October 9 and started wrecking guys, and the Chargers are 2–1 since. Bosa is the most disruptive rookie force we’ve seen in years, and he’s going to win the Chargers some more games.
I think it’s too late for the Chargers to rattle off a bunch of wins and steal a playoff spot this year, but it’s a great what-if. This week, I see Denver winning at home, but Bosa and San Diego keeping it close.
Green Bay (+3) over ATLANTA
When Micah Hyde was asked how to stop Julio Jones, he said prayer. He’s probably correct, but there are signs that stopping Jones may not be the key to stopping the Falcons. Last week against San Diego, Jones had 174 yards, and the week before against Seattle, he posted 139. Both were losses. The issue in both of those games is that Jones’s supporting cast underperformed. Against Seattle, no one else topped 70 yards receiving. Against the Chargers, running back Devonta Freeman had 42 yards receiving, leading all non-Jones players. Among non–running backs, Jacob Tamme starred with 17 yards.
The Falcons are 4–3, and after two straight losses, it’s only natural to make comparisons to last year. Here’s the good news: The Falcons were 6–1 at this point last year, so these Falcons would barely have to implode to screw everything up! Last year was a true collapse; this year would be a minor tumble.
Running back Tevin Coleman is likely out injured, so Freeman will be the full-time featured back this week. The Falcons must find a way to get Jones and Matt Ryan some help. I’m guessing they won’t.
Eagles (+4.5) over COWBOYS
Jordan Matthews speculated that Carson Wentz–Dak Prescott could be the new Manning-Brady. That’s premature. Remember, three years ago we were wondering if Kaepernick-Wilson would take that throne. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tony Romo started throwing passes this week: Sunday could wind up being one of the defining nights of his career, because if Prescott handles a very good Eagles team, Romo could be done in Dallas.
Unlike Prescott, who’s avoided mistakes and continued to perform alongside a ground-and-pound attack, Wentz has hit a bit of a wall, throwing two picks last week after throwing just one the rest of the season. Prescott is outplaying him:
I think the Cowboys will win by a field goal, but the Eagles defense will keep it close enough to cover. Prescott will outplay Wentz — and Romo will start looking for a new team.
Vikings (-6) over BEARS
What a game.
A divided, bad Bears team against the best defense in the NFL? One more Vine, for the road:
Last week: 10–4–1
Overall record: 50–51–5