Sunday is a big day for a lot of people. Tom Brady will face his first big test of the season, against Seattle, and Dak Prescott will play in perhaps his most marquee game to date, on the road against Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. But no one has more at stake this weekend than the NFL itself.
After two months of astoundingly low ratings by typical NFL standards, Sunday might be the league’s biggest day in years. Prime-time games are down by double digits, and even great games like Monday night’s Seattle-Buffalo thriller, which was the lowest-rated Week 9 Monday night game since 2007, haven’t been able to help.
While a close examination of every variable points to oversaturation as the true culprit, many have posited that the election has also taken eyeballs away from the game. After all, as a Fox executive recently noted, cable news viewership on Sundays almost doubled during the leadup to November 8. Perhaps this really was an inevitable but temporary dip for a league that, as commissioner Roger Goodell pointed out, increased ratings 27 percent in a decade.
That’s why those I spoke to in the league and the TV industry will be watching so closely on the first Sunday following the election. It’s the first test in a new climate, and what’s more, it’s a prime slate. Dallas-Pittsburgh is a classic matchup, while Seattle–New England is a pairing so strong it would take the television equivalent of throwing the ball at the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl to blow it. (What, too soon?)
If the ratings bounce back immediately, we’ll know the election really did contribute to the dip. If they’re up but not back to normal, that’ll still be encouraging for the league. But if they bottom out again, it’ll be be time for the NFL to be seriously concerned.
Last year at this time, 23 million people watched the Eagles and Cowboys on Sunday night. Most of the people I spoke to anticipate that the league will start to see some improvement this weekend, but that with post-election politics continuing to dominate the news cycle for weeks if not months, we won’t see the unimpeachable totals of the 2015 football campaign until much later in the season, if at all.
The NFL is already preparing for the possibility that it won’t instantly go back to being TV’s top dog, openly considering ways to improve its television product. The league’s media czar, Brian Rolapp, said this week that the NFL could look at changing things that are “sacred cows” to the sport, like pace of play.
Those kinds of considerations are a first in the modern era of the NFL, and that matters, because regardless of what happens to the ratings the rest of the year, the league’s status as an impenetrable force has been shaken. Remember, the initial presidential debate/NFL hullabaloo was over whether the NFL was such a behemoth that it would overshadow the political process; we now know that it was the other way around.
Rarely over the past three decades has anything overshadowed the league. A few years ago, an NFL executive told me that the league office stopped showing team owners information on how the NFL did against other sports, because it was no longer that impressive to beat those sports so badly. Instead, they showed the owners how football ratings compared to literally everything else on television: prime-time scripted dramas, sitcoms, you name it. The executive specifically mentioned a Big Bang Theory ratings comparison (guess who won).
The NFL used to be able to take on all comers and win. Now, for the first time in a long time, it will enter a Sunday worried about its grip on the television landscape.
And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)
Green Bay (-3) over TENNESSEE
When talking about this game, Aaron Rodgers delivered perhaps my favorite quote of the season:
He’s correct on that one. He’s also correct in noting that the people who wrote in his name for president — there are always a few — did so at the expense of Harambe.
Of course, these two teams having the same number of wins (four) at this point in the season is as weird as voting for Harambe. Green Bay has underperformed and Tennessee has overperformed, but at some point the Packers have to break out. Right? Uh, right?
If it’s going to happen, it may be on Sunday. Of the 15 teams that start their drives at the 28-yard line or worse — Green Bay begins at the 27.5, on average — only two score more often than the Pack. The offense tends to come, meaning this team’s ability to win largely depends on the defense. And in Week 10, that unit will have a chance to take advantage of the overly generous Marcus Mariota, who seems to be giving up a defensive touchdown per game these days.
NEW ORLEANS (-3) over Denver
Strength of schedule has become a hot topic in NFL circles, and the Cowboys’ favorable slate to date was broached by fans and media alike this week. The truth is that with so few teams distinguishing themselves as contenders so far, it’s tougher to know how to value a win. Is it impressive to beat the Steelers? The Packers? The freaking 5–3 Texans? Due to rampant mediocrity, few units have gotten the chance to truly prove themselves against quality opponents.
The Broncos’ pass defense is a rare exception. Aside from their matchup with the Texans, the Broncos have faced a talented passer in every game this season. The Broncos make good quarterbacks bad and great offenses merely good: They won’t shut down the potent Saints, but they’ll do something similar to what they did against the electric Falcons, who scored their season low in points (23) in a win against Denver on October 9. Drew Brees and Co. are averaging 30 points per game, but will struggle to exceed a low-20s total here. It’s all up to the Broncos offense to pull out a win. And, uh:
Los Angeles (+1.5) over NY JETS
Good stuff from the Jets lately. Mo Wilkerson didn’t show up to his own birthday gathering, which took place during a team meeting (do NFL teams know how to party or what?) and then the New York Daily News ran a column saying “No kid should admire him.” Wilkerson signed a five-year, $86 million deal just before training camp, but at this rate it’s unclear whether he’ll see another birthday cake with the Jets.
Meanwhile, Bryce Petty may start for Gang Green with Ryan Fitzpatrick battling a knee sprain. He also might not, because a banged-up Fitzpatrick may be better than a healthy but super terrible Petty. Todd Bowles can talk to Jeff Fisher about how to handle starting a mediocre veteran quarterback over a young, raw option, since the Rams coach still refuses to go with Jared Goff.
If Goff and Petty can’t be slightly better than awful, there’s something wrong:
PHILADELPHIA (+2) over Atlanta
America knows almost nothing about Matt Ryan, but we’ve learned two vital pieces of information in the week that he’s returning home to Philadelphia (yeah, that’s where he’s from!). The first is that he goes back to Philly in the offseason for the food. The second is that there are so many people named “Matt” in the Falcons quarterback room — three quarterbacks and the quarterback coach — that saying “Matt” in meetings is an absolute disaster. “I kind of sound, I guess, a little arrogant right now, but 95 percent of the time, they’re talking to me,” Ryan told ESPN.
His counterpart in this game, Carson Wentz, has thrown two touchdowns and four interceptions in his past three games. If the rookie can’t pull something out against a bad Falcons defense, then it’s time to consider the first few games of his season beginner’s luck (or the product of an easy schedule). But at home, I expect Wentz to finally hit some consistent deep passes, and the Eagles to sneak by late.
TAMPA BAY (+2.5) over Chicago
A lifeless Jay Cutler, imagine that.
WASHINGTON (-3) over Minnesota
I’m intrigued by this:
Which kicker workout is considered the best of all time? How are these things judged? I mean, presumably, most kickers make the kicks. Does the best kicker need to have a dope haircut, too? Wear cool clothes? Have the Undertaker’s theme song as his entrance music when he walks onto the field? Imagine Mike Zimmer walking into the locker room and telling Blair Walsh “Sorry Blair, this other kicker’s workout knocked our socks off.”
Right now, the Vikings are not knocking anyone’s socks off. Perhaps they should be looking for great offensive line workouts as well. In the three games since Minnesota’s mid-October bye week, Sam Bradford has been sacked 13 times; in 2008, Brees was sacked that much over 16 games and 635 pass attempts. Even more worrying: The Vikings defense, which forced nine turnovers in its first three games and 12 in the five games before the bye, has forced just one in the past two outings. The Vikings are in free fall. More exciting workouts await!
CAROLINA (-3) over Kansas City
This is an interesting battle between two quarterbacks trying to stay healthy: Alex Smith, who was out last week after taking multiple hits to the head the game prior, said he’ll change his game to avoid sliding late. Cam Newton, of course, said he wasn’t going to change his game after an October concussion, but has pushed for officials to call more personal fouls. Smith referenced Newton’s comments this week and offered his agreement:
Both of these quarterbacks will look to use their legs in this game. Andy Reid hasn’t lost a regular-season contest along the East Coast since becoming Kansas City’s coach, going 7–0 in those games (5–0 if you think Buffalo is in the Midwest). Justin Houston has an outside chance to play for the first time this season, which would be a boon for the Chiefs. But the Panthers have won two straight and are starting to win the turnover battle — a battle they lost in five of their first six games. The Panthers have always had the talent; they just needed to cut down on the dumb mistakes, and now they’re doing so.
Houston (+1.5) over JACKSONVILLE
Jacksonville makes me sad. I’ve never seen a coach despair like Gus Bradley did after a recent call. The “No … nooooo!” look he gives the ref is like the turning point in a horror movie.
Bradley needs to go, but the crappy division in which the Jags play, and the crappy division leader they play this week, gives them some optimism. “I think we still control our destiny,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. Oy.
Meanwhile, it’s introspection time for the Texans. This week Brock Osweiler detailed three things he needs to get better at: ball security, red zone situations, and third downs. Basically, the three indicators of success for a quarterback, all of which are struggles for Osweiler right now. Oh and:
Houston wins. I guess.
SAN DIEGO (-4) over Miami
I cannot recommend this video enough:
Some people like the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror. I prefer Philip Rivers asking an angry Derrick Morgan “What happened? Did he hold you? Did he really?” like a concerned parent asking a neighborhood child if his own kid had been mean. At the 4:37 mark, he’s worried about taking a knee and losing the team’s total rushing yards, so he kneels at the line of scrimmage and then, to avoid being a jerk, explains his intentions to the defense.
Speaking of revelations, word emerged this week that the 2015 running back class maintains a group text to check in on each other. This has to be among the most obscure group texts in the NFL, but it’s come into focus because Jay Ajayi and Melvin Gordon, the two star running backs in this game and two of the breakout stars of this season, are on the thread. I think Gordon will have another big game here, giving him reason to send a great emoji to the group on Sunday night.
PITTSBURGH (-2) over Dallas
Tony Romo is “healthy enough to play” in the same way that Val Kilmer is ready and available to make another Batman: He may think it’s true, but I’m not sure the call is coming. Romo picked a bad time to get healthy, because the Cowboys look like a force. No one is seriously suggesting that Romo should play this week, even though he’s practicing, but that could change soon. The Cowboys are starting an interesting stretch here: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, and Minnesota, all teams with the capability to give the ’Boys a run. If Prescott falters in one of those games, calls for a return to Romo could start. If Prescott makes it through those games unscathed, though, Romo will be relegated to full-time counter:
I think the rookie will do enough to keep it close on Sunday, but I like a semihealthy Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers to a late field goal at home.
ARIZONA (-13.5) over San Francisco
Two seemingly contradictory but true statements: (1) this spread is ludicrously high, and (2) when I was thinking about this game I was wondering if it was going to be higher. The Cardinals have been favored by double digits exactly once in the Bruce Arians era: last month against the Rams, in a game Arizona lost outright.
That’s interesting, but here’s something even more interesting: David Johnson is awesome and leads the NFL in yards per scrimmage. The 49ers, meanwhile, are incapable of defending running backs, giving up 5.3 yards per attempt, almost a half-yard more than any other team. This line couldn’t be high enough. Take Arizona plus the OVER on Johnson’s rushing yards, which, in my mind, is set at 700.
Seattle (+7.5) over NEW ENGLAND
This is a great game and an even better gambling line. Here’s how close Seahawks losses usually are:
OK, great, but now they’re playing the Patriots, whose closest game since Tom Brady returned in October was 11 points. The Seahawks have been underdogs like this once before in the Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson era. It was in 2012, and they covered. They were 6.5-point underdogs last year against Arizona and … won by 30. The Patriots will win this game at home, but it will be within a touchdown. The Seahawks, coming off a short week and an oddly emotional victory, will be too tired to get a win traveling west to east, but they’ll be solid enough to give Brady his first real test.
Cincinnati (Pick ’Em) over NY GIANTS
Here’s a very on-brand headline: “Bengals coach Marvin Lewis explains why he’s ‘fine with’ ties in the NFL.” Lewis, who has tied three times since 2008, is definitely fine with ties, but the Bengals need a win here. I still believe Cincy can make the playoffs, but the push has to start this week, because the Bengals have the Giants, Bills, Ravens, and Eagles before their automatic win over the Browns on December 11.
Their tie would have taken them out of contention in most divisions, but most divisions don’t have a might-still-be-bad 5–4 Ravens team as the leader, like the AFC North does. I don’t think Eli Manning will repeat last week’s decent performance, because expecting Manning to be decent two weeks in a row is foolish considering he’s been held without a touchdown pass three times this year. No one ever went broke thinking Eli Manning was going to play ugly in the week following a productive game.
Last week: 7–5–1
Overall record: 62–63–7