The big news this week is that Tom Brady is finally returning from suspension to face an NFL team. Of course, that’s not true, because he’ll be playing the Cleveland Browns. But he will once again be a member of the New England Patriots now that his four-game Deflategate suspension (and our long national nightmare) is complete.
This is a good thing for the Patriots, who’d be 4–0 instead of 3–1 if Brady had been playing. It’s also good for the NFL, whose ratings have sagged amid some generally dull, poorly played games. It’s hard to remember an NFL team enjoying a more significant in-season addition than this. The AFC East isn’t really up for grabs at this point, because the Dolphins and Jets are their normal selves and Buffalo is involved in a “Trump-related schism.” But plenty remains to be sorted out. The next three months of action will be both fascinating and crucial for Brady, the Patriots, and other NFL contenders. Here’s what to watch for:
The Patriots Still Have to Win a Lot of Games
The mid-2000s were weird. Show any recent college graduate five minutes of Entourage and tell them that this was at one point considered cool, and they’ll look at you with the same fury that Ari had when he looked at Lloyd (ask your older siblings). In football, the era that started in the mid-2000s and continued into the beginning of this decade was especially weird because a lot of crappy teams somehow snuck into the playoffs and won on the road. The 2007 and 2011 Giants, 2010 Packers, and 2012 Ravens all won big on the road and kick-started a notion that home-field advantage in the playoffs no longer mattered.
But after 2012, NFL parity declined: We haven’t seen so many perennial playoff repeats since the late 1970s, and the best teams nowadays are as good as the best teams in any era. Why does this matter? All there is to separate the best clubs is home-field advantage, which the Pats learned all too well when they lost last year’s AFC title game in Denver. Home teams have now won six straight conference title games combined across the NFL, and in the last three divisional rounds, home teams have gone 10–2. The Pats already spotted Denver a game by losing to the Bills last week — the division title may be in hand, but when it comes to playoff seeding, there’s not much room for error.
We Get to See How Good the Pats Are
Football doesn’t use a “value over replacement player” metric like baseball does, but the Patriots got to simulate one by seeing exactly what their team looks like without their superstar. The Patriots offense absent Brady was … fine, scoring 20 points per game, including getting shut out by the Bills.
Brady’s return means we get to see if Chris Hogan, who had just eight receptions but averaged 15.3 yards per catch these last four games, is ready to be a legitimate threat, or if Martellus Bennett is ready to be a top-five tight end. The Pats showed flashes this past month, but on Sunday, we’ll get to see that potential fully realized.
Brady Gets a Test
The best Bill Belichick reaction in history stemmed from a 2014 question over whether Brady’s job status would be evaluated:
That’s not necessarily a distant memory, as Brady will face a sliver of pressure to improve on the performances Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett delivered in his absence. Brady posted a QB rating north of 100 last year, so there’s no reason to think he’ll slow in the next 12 games. But if he doesn’t dominate, Pats fans and national media alike will be just a keyboard away from saying “what if?” A pissed-off, competitive Brady? Yes please.
Now, on to the picks (home teams in CAPS):
Chicago (+5) over INDIANAPOLIS
The Colts became the first team to forgo a bye after a London trip, opting to take theirs later in the year instead. General manager Ryan Grigson said it’s part of the team’s no-excuses culture: “There’s a point and time where you just have to forget about all the baloney and beat the guy across from you.” The Colts’ choice may have seemed savvy when they made it in the spring, but who among us would have guessed that by Week 5 they’d be an injured mess, with Andrew Luck getting hit too much and the defense failing to stop anyone? Knowing that would have required watching a Colts game at any point in the last four years, or Googling the team name, or being within 300 miles of Indianapolis.
Things are so bad that the Colts are getting heat for relying on Luck too much. This is true in the same way that Cast Away relied on Tom Hanks too much. For large swaths of the movie, Hanks’s character was the only one capable of speech, and Luck seems to be the only Colt capable of performing. He needs help now.
Meanwhile, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio says he’s “feeling pretty good about it.” He’s talking about the Cubs’ World Series chances, of course, not the Bears. But for once, he could be talking about his own team. The Colts will win, but it’ll be closer than it should; look for the Bears to cover.
MIAMI (-3.5) over Tennessee
The Dolphins have covered three of their past 14 games overall and just two of their past 12 home games. The Titans have covered three of their past 14 games overall and just four of their past 17 road games. Please do not watch this game. If you must — for instance, if you play for one of the two teams — make sure to not look directly at the events on the field.
The Dolphins will win. The Titans just fired their special teams coach on Monday, which is a recipe for struggling come Sunday, and Mike Mularkey has turned the Titans into an offense so boring it’s a shock the group wasn’t a participant in Tuesday’s vice presidential debate.
CLEVELAND (+11.5) over New England
Like a high school kid sneaking a beer from his parents’ fridge, Vegas couldn’t resist the urge to go against Belichick when it got the chance, making the Pats home underdogs against the Texans when Brady was still out. Now that Brady’s back, the Patriots are again boasting massive spreads against bad teams.
New England’s blowouts over opponents come in spurts, though. The Pats covered all three lines last year in which they were double-digit favorites, but didn’t cover any such spreads in 2013 or 2014. They didn’t cover their five highest lines ever (four of which were insane lines from 2007 in which they were favored by more than 18) but they always have the ability to — and this is science — beat the crap out of teams. The Patriots are obviously going to win this game, but I anticipate something closer to a touchdown margin of victory than a blowout. Brady will take a few series to get going, no one seems to know whether Rob Gronkowski is healthy, and this team did just lose at home to the freaking Bills. As always, though: Bet against Belichick at your own peril.
Philadelphia (-3) over DETROIT
Carson Wentz shot a buck with a crossbow over the bye week — it was, the Philadelphia media reports, his first “bow buck.” Uh, anyway. What should excite Eagles fans is that (1) Wentz is awesome, and (2) the Eagles are much more than Wentz. They’re starting their drives on the 34.9-yard line, more than 2 yards closer to the goal line than any other team. Their defense is elite and their special teams are great. They are a legitimately good team, not just a three-game flash buoyed by surprising quarterback play. Even Doug Pederson looks good. The Eagles are all getting their own bow bucks.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, safety Glover Quin went absolutely off the rails by comparing the Lions’ lack of communication to a marriage debate over household chores. The entire, tortured analogy is worth a read, but here’s a taste: “So you would assume that she’s going to take the trash out. And you come in and you’re like, ‘Why’s the trash not out?’ (And she says,) ‘You didn’t take it out?’ ‘Well, I’ve been at work. You should have took it out.’ So you’ve got to communicate how the trash is going to get taken out.”
Let’s move on.
BALTIMORE (-4) over Washington
The perfect matchup: a Baltimore team that may or may not be any good vs. a Redskins quarterback who fits the same description. Get amped: Among teams that have made all of their field goals, these two have attempted the most. The difference between these sides is that you sort of know what you’re doing to get with the Ravens: no run game and a generally plodding offense that will dink-and-dunk (Baltimore is the only NFL team with a yards-per-catch average below 10). Washington is more boom-or-bust, with drives ending in a score 53 percent of the time, second best in the NFL behind the Falcons. The problem? Ten percent of their drives end in turnovers. At home, I’ll take the predictable — albeit predictably boring — quantity.
N.Y. Jets (+7.5) over PITTSBURGH
Pittsburgh doesn’t have a pass rush that bothers quarterbacks. On the other hand, Kansas City has a terrible pass rush, and Ryan Fitzpatrick somehow still threw six interceptions against the Chiefs. I’m guessing — and this may be an awful guess — that Fitzpatrick is going to start doing the thing where he throws touchdowns and the Jets somehow score 28 points and keep it close. Todd Bowles has been an underdog six times in his Jets career; he’s covered four of those and has won three outright. The only time his team truly got blown out was when Fitzpatrick went full Fitzpatrick and threw those six picks. This selection comes down to believing in Fitzpatrick putting enough points on the board to cover the spread. It’s not a belief that comes easy.
MINNESOTA (-7) over Houston
If Houston fans had one nightmare from spring until now, it would be reading the headline “Brock Osweiler, DeAndre Hopkins struggle with chemistry.” But here we are. Add in J.J. Watt’s season-ending back injury, and it’s been a rough year in Houston. Osweiler has found rookie Will Fuller often enough that the season hasn’t been a total disaster, but it’s worrying that Hopkins, who has been able to develop chemistry with bad quarterbacks before — he’s played with Matt Schaub, Tom Savage, Case Keenum, Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden — hasn’t found a groove with Houston’s new $72 million man.
The team on the other sideline is paying $5 million less against the cap for Sam Bradford, a dark horse MVP candidate. Sure, the Vikings had to give up a first-round draft pick to land him, but the Minnesota front office did what it needed to do to help a team already fielding an elite defense get into Super Bowl contention. The same can’t be said for the Texans so far.
LOS ANGELES (-3) over Buffalo
If you missed Rex Ryan giving the most honest look at his football philosophy this week, it’s worth exploring. In 2014, Ryan said that Aaron Donald couldn’t hold Sheldon Richardson’s jock. Those words are pretty funny now, because while Richardson is a solid player, Donald is one of the five best defenders in the NFL. He also says he remembers the comments. Ryan explained it thusly: “One of our coaches had said, ‘This guy can’t hold his jock.’ So I go ahead and say it — I never even saw him play, but I knew he was a rookie, so rookies shouldn’t go to the Pro Bowl. So, anyway, after I’ve seen this kid play, I’m like, ‘Oh boy!’” The comment itself was outrageous; that it came from someone who now admits he had no first-hand knowledge makes it almost unbelievable. I love Ryan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: He’s going to be great on TV.
Anyway, this is going to be an exciting game. The Rams are brilliant at making every team they face seem as boring as they are. The Bills are truly already as boring as the Rams, so the only option is to cancel each other out and play a truly fun game. The Rams will win because they’re at home. And Rex Ryan will see Aaron Donald play and once again get to say “Oh boy!”
DENVER (-6) over Atlanta
I love this matchup. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will try to play pitch-and-catch against an unstoppable Denver defense. Atlanta’s defense will try to figure out a bizarre Denver offense that’s the first since the 1986 Bears to have a win streak of more than six games while playing four different quarterbacks. Jones’s 300-yard game in Week 4, meanwhile, featured Carolina guarding him in one-on-one coverage with multiple players. It ended predictably:
Denver will not have a bad game plan on defense because (a) Wade Phillips doesn’t really do bad defensive game plans, and (b) the Broncos have the players to execute anything well. Von Miller is going to be in Ryan’s face the whole game. Take away Jones’s ability to score at will, as he did against Carolina, and the Falcons aren’t as big of a threat.
San Diego (+4) over OAKLAND
There are dueling trends here: The Raiders are still awful at stopping the pass, as the 1,302 passing yards they’ve allowed put them last in the NFL. They’ve also given up the second-most rushing yards. San Diego, meanwhile, is sixth in yards per attempt and third in rushing touchdowns so far this year. Point Chargers. The trend that argues for the Raiders is that the Chargers are incapable of not blowing a lead late. Their three losses — to the Chiefs, Colts, and Saints — all came thanks to backbreakingly late choke jobs. The Raiders have twice stormed back for fourth-quarter comebacks, making them prime candidates to do so again.
Oakland, however, is a young team. We’ve seen the Raiders tank once already after an emotional road win, following up their exhilarating Week 1 victory at New Orleans with a clunker against the Falcons at home. I’m expecting the Chargers to build a two-score lead and actually keep it this time.
Cincinnati (-1.5) over DALLAS
Andy Dalton is perhaps the league’s most surprisingly awesome road quarterback: He’s 6–2 on the road since the beginning of last year. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have almost no home-field advantage: The win over the Bears two weeks ago was their first home win since Week 1 of 2015. Dallas is also ill equipped to take advantage of the Bengals’ inability to protect Dalton. Cincy has allowed more sacks than all but one team, yet Dallas, still depleted on the defensive line, is tied for 24th in sacks. Dallas leads the league with an average of 7.4 plays per drive. The Bengals defense, meanwhile, is good at tackling and keeping everything in front of it, and has limited offenses to 5.3 plays per drive. This is going to be Dallas’s biggest test yet.
GREEN BAY (-7) over N.Y. Giants
I want to pick the Giants. I don’t have a lot of faith in the Packers winning big against anyone, but if it’s going to come, it’ll happen against a team that has become consumed with shaming its star wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., into being less emotional. It seemed like the Giants en masse decided this week to chide Beckham for his outbursts, a rare sight in a league where airing dirty laundry is almost unheard of. Eli Manning went on Mike Francesa and sounded like an actual Francesa caller who wants Beckham to calm down. Beckham told ESPN that he wasn’t having fun. Then came this headline: “Giants’ Mara discusses Beckham Jr. at Vatican.” One universal football rule: If an owner is being asked about a controversy at the Vatican, rearrange your life and finances to bet against that team.
Tampa Bay (+7) over CAROLINA
The life of a veteran backup quarterback is great. See late-stage Matt Hasselbeck, a well-liked former starter who is great at being friends with the starting quarterback and giving funny quotes and knowing opposing game plans. Pederson made a career of this. Rex Grossman had a shot at it, but didn’t make it past 2015 Falcons camp. The problem with this gravy train is that at some point these players have to play. Derek Anderson, who has been in Carolina for six seasons, will likely get his third start as a Panther on Monday as Cam Newton deals with a concussion. This is not ideal. Have you noticed how few good quarterbacks there are in the NFL? Well, think about what it means when a guy who’s even worse than those 32 starters has to go in there. Unless a team lucks into a stud like Wentz or Dak Prescott or has Belichick dreaming up brilliant ways to win, it’s going to struggle when it has to put in the no. 2.
The Panthers defense seems like the type that Jameis Winston will carve up. The Panthers offense, already featuring a stalled running game, may lack any firepower with Newton sidelined. The Panthers certainly have a chance of grinding this out, but it won’t be the two-score blowout needed to cover.
Last week: 9–6
2016 season total: 33–28–1