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Week 9 NFL Picks: Searching for Football’s Cubs

Nothing can match the drama that Game 7 of the World Series provided — but we have a few dream scenarios that might be close

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t know if you heard, but they played a baseball game on Wednesday night, and it was pretty great. In fact, it was probably the coolest thing that’s happened in baseball, and maybe American sports, in a few decades.

Cubs-Indians had it all: two long-suffering franchises playing a do-or-die game; a wild comeback; an almost-iconic home run; LeBron looking like a maniac; and a dramatic play in extra innings.

The NFL would have a hard time replicating that level of drama. (Though to be fair, so would any movie, book, play, or Snapchat story made about any topic in the next 100 years.) There are plenty of reasons, but namely it would be hard for one team to match a 108-year championship drought. (The likeliest culprit, the Jets, would have to flail until 2077 to match the Cubs’ futility.) But a few NFL experiences could come close. If you’re already craving more drama, here’s what to root for:

A Browns-Lions Overtime Super Bowl

Browns fans are somehow so much sadder than Cubs fans. Cub fans get to live in cool neighborhoods in a large city, enjoy outdoor games during the summer, and drink decent beer. So even amid the losing, the North Siders enjoyed themselves.

Cleveland fans haven’t gotten to enjoy a lot. This compilation of sad Browns fans is seven years old, and things have only gotten sadder since.

The Browns haven’t made the playoffs in 14 seasons, haven’t won a playoff game since 1995, and have never won a Super Bowl. The Lions have enjoyed more recent success, but have never made a Super Bowl. The Lions actually have the ability to get there behind Matthew Stafford and some nice pieces on defense. The Browns … have a long way to go. Seeing these two teams face off in a game that had to result in a championship for one of them, and adding in overtime for additional agita, would be the pinnacle. The shame would be that America would have to watch a Lions-Browns game, but the stakes would propel this into epic territory. It’s not likely, but it’s the best possible scenario for the league.

The Raiders Winning the AFC Title Game This Season

The Raiders are going to move now that they’re finally relevant. That’s tough on the fans, who are traveling so well this season that it’s really pissing off opposing coaches. Watch any of their games, and you can see that Raiders fans were waiting for this successful season the way Star Wars fans were waiting for The Force Awakens. With a move to Las Vegas or Los Angeles looking likely, the Raiders hosting the Broncos in Oakland for the AFC title game would be the most dramatic possible Bay Area ending. Conference title game crowds are always better than Super Bowl crowds because everyone’s a fan and there are fewer corporate sponsors. Raiders fans get fired up for games against the Jaguars; seeing them in this setting would be one of the craziest scenarios possible.

A Vikings-Bills “Someone Has to Win” Championship Game

Both of these franchises have made the Super Bowl four times. Neither has a title to show for it. That could change as soon as this year, though. The Vikings have a chance to make a real run behind a strong defense, and the 4–4 Bills look like they could make the playoffs and produce some flukey wins. FORCING one of these teams to end its drought would be the height of drama, especially because the loser would slink back to its snow-covered city still ringless.

Jeff Fisher Winning More Than Seven Games for the Rams

OK, this one’s a bit out there. But it will happen one day, Rams fans. It may take 108 years, but it will happen.

And now, on to the picks. (Home teams in CAPS.)

KANSAS CITY (-7.5) over Jacksonville

Bad stuff’s happening in Jacksonville, where Jags players are fighting with the fans. Malik Jackson ripped them for swimming in the stadium pools instead of cheering, then issued a half-hearted apology featuring the phrase “I guess [Jaguars fans] want to see their team win.” Wide receiver Allen Robinson ribbed the home crowd for being quieter than the fans in London. And Rashad Greene deleted a tweet that said in part, “Keep the negative comments to yourself.” I’ve seen some Jaguars football, and that seems like an impossible ask. (I’m not going to point out that Greene had muffed a punt against Oakland, because I’m keeping the negative comments to myself.) Here’s the thing: Jaguars fans already have to watch the Jaguars. There’s no reason to give them more grief. When Mr. Robot had a bad second season, the actors didn’t say it was the fans’ fault.

At least help is on the way:

The Jags promoted their quarterback coach to offensive coordinator this week, yet brought in Bortles’s private coach to teach mechanics. Hm.

The Chiefs have their own quarterback problems, with Alex Smith out with a concussion. Ridiculously, Andy Reid had to knock down the notion that there’s a quarterback controversy. Some people seem to think that Nick Foles — Nick Foles! — might be better than Smith because he can throw the ball farther down field. They’re forgetting one crucial fact: Smith typically picks the right team to throw to.

Detroit (+6) over MINNESOTA

So Jim Caldwell doesn’t doze off during just Lions games. Good to know.

Caldwell is getting some heat these days for some interesting coaching decisions: He didn’t challenge a likely fumble last week against the Texans and made a puzzling onside kick call that failed. If Caldwell wastes Stafford’s career year, it may be time to look for another coach. But for now, the Lions are somehow the more stable franchise in this matchup.

We’re going to find out how valuable the Vikings’ great defense is, because seemingly every other trend is working against the team right now. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned this week to spend more time with his deep routes; the banged-up offensive line seems to be getting worse by the week; and three players (including two vital pieces in Alex Boone and Eric Kendricks) are in concussion protocol. Oh, and Mike Zimmer had eye surgery this week.

In case you’re wondering, Pat Shurmur is the new offensive coordinator. He worked with Sam Bradford in Philadelphia. This was the result:

NY GIANTS (-3) over Philadelphia

This week, Ben McAdoo said he deals with three “dumpster fires” a day as Giants coach, and that’s a fitting way to describe the Eagles right now. They’re still a good team, but at 4–3, the Eagles have the same record as the Giants, who have no business having the same record as the Eagles. The Cowboys’ two-game division lead already looks almost insurmountable considering the Eagles have the Falcons, Seahawks, Packers, and Bengals after this week.

This isn’t the time for the Eagles to start going off the rails even a little, but here they are. It started earlier this week when wideout Nelson Agholor said that dropping the ball means “nothing.” Interesting take, to be sure. Coach Doug Pederson expressed disappointment, and Agholor apologized. Another wide receiver, Josh Huff, was stopped by police and charged with unlawful possession of a weapon, and given a ticket for DUI and a summons for marijuana possession. Huff responded to the incident by saying, “What professional athlete don’t have a gun?,” and was promptly released.

Pittsburgh (-1) over BALTIMORE

Baltimore, loser of four straight, doesn’t officially know who it will see at quarterback, as Ben Roethlisberger is still rehabbing his torn meniscus. The Ravens seem to have an idea, however:

It’s hard to overstate how important Roethlisberger’s health is to this game and these teams’ seasons. The Ravens are 6–1 against the Steelers when Pittsburgh has played without Roethlisberger since he joined the league. If the Ravens were able to steal a win at home here, they would, miraculously, be tied with the Steelers with a 4–4 record. If he plays? Well, the Ravens are 22nd in passing touchdowns allowed, which seems not ideal when facing a Roethlisberger–Antonio Brown combination.

Roethlisberger made interesting comments this week, saying that he should probably change his playing style to stay healthy, but simply can’t. You have to wonder how often Roethlisberger will get injured going forward if he continues to scramble and play so physically in his 30s. His health essentially determines the AFC North race. The Ravens might not have the pieces to make a run if Roethlisberger plays the rest of the year, but if nothing else, they grasp the value of scarcity in comedy.

Dallas (-8) over CLEVELAND

NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo stitched together the trend we’ve all been sensing:

The Cowboys are one more Dak Prescott win away from Tony Romo getting a “New phone, who dis?” reply the next time he texts Jerry Jones. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said this week that the Cowboys will need Romo “at some point,” which is the equivalent of telling a not-close friend that you’ll see him for a beer sometime.

Meanwhile, this is the debut for new Brown Jamie Collins, who instantly becomes the most exciting player on the Browns since Josh Gordon. (Joe Thomas, while great, is not exciting. And Johnny Manziel was exciting in name only.)

It will be interesting to see if Collins can make any tangible impact this quickly. It’s probably unrealistic to expect a significant boost on Sunday, but he’s such a great athlete that he may be able to hide from Cowboys lineman Tyron Smith, who is now destroying everyone at every spot on the field:

MIAMI (-3.5) over NY Jets

Brandon Marshall detailed this week how he “was about to cry” when he thought he was going to get traded. The conclusion here is that no one has ever wanted to be a Jet more than Brandon Marshall, and that’s a hell of statement with the team in the middle of a lost season. Aside from Sheldon Richardson complaining about his role, Marshall is the only interesting thing about the Jets right now. He for some reason picked a fight with Byron Maxwell this week, saying that in the previous meeting the cornerback “held every single play.” Marshall’s ability to be a great receiver and entertain the fans seems like the only thing that can keep the Jets fun for the next eight games. One thing that isn’t fun: Ryan Fitzpatrick, who continues to be perhaps the worst quarterback in the NFL. He took responsibility this week: The New York Daily News’ headline read “Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick takes blame for 3–5 start.” On the one hand, that’s noble. On the other, it is clearly his fault.

The Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi is going for his third-straight 200-yard game, which would be an NFL first.

It likely won’t happen against the Jets’ run defense, but even if Ajayi has a slow day, the new-and-improved Dolphins should use their weapons — Jarvis Landry! Kenny Stills! — well enough to put up some points. One of them will even be lucky enough to go against 2016 Darrelle Revis:

Carolina (-3) over LOS ANGELES

Congrats to Jeff Fisher on working. One thing he wasn’t working on, however, was getting Jared Goff playing time as an NFL quarterback. Goff, who was the first overall pick in a draft that has revealed itself to be a great one for young quarterbacks, took first-team reps during the bye week, but that apparently wasn’t enough. Case Keenum, who threw four interceptions in the team’s last game, against the Giants in London, will remain the starter because, according to offensive coordinator Rob Boras, “He’s played really well.”

The more Keenum starts the more we have to wonder how slow Goff’s development must actually be. The Rams have a good young nucleus, especially on defense, but to miss on a quarterback when there were apparently two franchise passers available would set this team back years.

Carolina, coming off a huge win over Arizona, will win this by two scores. I think the Panthers still have a run left in them. They won’t make the playoffs, but they won’t be picking in the top 10 of the draft, either.

GREEN BAY (-7.5) over Indianapolis

First of all, props to Chuck Pagano for being vindicated by Joe Maddon and proving that “completely inexplicable overcoaching” can work. Speaking of Pagano, he said that this week is a “defining moment” for his team. It’s likely a defining moment for his job, at least. The Colts are 3–5, and if they lose again to fall to 3–6, they run the risk of falling into last place in perhaps the worst division in football. If Pagano loses to a pretty good Packers team, the Colts may leave him in Green Bay (and good luck getting a direct flight back, Chuck). If this is truly the end for Pagano, the Indianapolis Star did a great job last week rounding up his best contribution to the greater football culture: spouting inane clichés.

In Green Bay, meanwhile, the offense now looks pretty good. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out that without any healthy and competent running backs, the team is moving to a more spread-out attack, regularly running “empty” formations (no running back). Perhaps Aaron Rodgers needed four or five wide receivers streaking down the field, hoping to get a half-step on a defender. Rodgers has proved over the last decade that he can work magic if a receiver is in basic one-on-one coverage, and maybe this new Packers offense is the right formula for maximizing those opportunities. The Packers have scored 26 and 32 points the last two weeks, so something is working. As Pagano would say, it is what it is.

New Orleans (-4.5) over SAN FRANCISCO

We had all accepted Drew Brees’s reality: He would throw for 5,000 yards, the defense would be awful, and the Saints would go 7–9. But something odd is happening: Their bad defense is no longer a fatal flaw, because their division foes are all now awful in that department as well. Every NFC South scoring defense ranks in the bottom eight in the league; in this division, you’re not cool unless you allow about four touchdowns per game. And that means the 3–4 Saints could legitimately be in playoff contention.

The Niners, meanwhile, are extraordinarily bad, and if they keep losing coming off the bye, Chip Kelly’s job will be in danger. It’s an open-and-shut case to Smash Mouth, the weird ’90s band, who last week said that Trent Baalke was one of the best general managers in the league and called Kelly’s system “total crap.” We haven’t yet heard from the Gin Blossoms, but the season is still young.

SAN DIEGO (-4.5) over Tennessee

What a stressful week Halloween must be for Philip Rivers, who has eight children. This week, he recited his kids’ Halloween costumes like coaches read out the injury report. One of his kids even dressed as Rivers himself:

I’m sorry, I know it’s the season, but I cannot see Tennessee dressing up as a 5–4 team. Bolts win.

Denver (+1) over OAKLAND

This is a great way to get everyone off the scent of one of the Raiders’ massive flaws. It’s the equivalent of being three hours late to a business meeting and saying, “Wow, lotsa lateness going around these days.”

Anyway, this is the matchup we’ve all been waiting for. It may be the game I’ve been most looking forward to all season: the irrepressible Raiders team with a great, exciting quarterback and a slew of weapons facing … a team designed to rip the soul out of that kind of offense.

The key here is to see how Derek Carr reacts in a big game against a team that is capable of ruining days. Carr is great under pressure, but he hasn’t seen the Broncos defense this year. It’s a unit that last week pressured Rivers on 31 of 51 dropbacks, more than any team pressured any quarterback all season. Speaking of the Broncos and Rivers, defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said he told Rivers he was going to eat his children during the game (a big meal, as you know after reading the prior entry). Wolfe and Von Miller form not only the best pass rush in the NFL, but also the wildest.

Both teams are 6–2, and the last time they played with records this good, John Elway was the Broncos’ quarterback and Jon Gruden was the Raiders’ coach. Speaking of Gruden: I like this Denver team here, man, I like them a lot.

Buffalo (+7) over SEATTLE

Against all odds, this will be a pretty good game. Vegas is hammering the Bills because they looked bad last week and are flying east to west, but Buffalo won its previous West Coast game this season (in Los Angeles), is still 4–4, and actually has a lot of talent. Plus, LeSean McCoy looks healthy.

On Monday’s edition of The Ringer NFL Show, I glumly picked the Seahawks to win the NFC, comparing picking them to investing in Apple.

There’s no rush or thrill in picking them, but it’s the prudent thing to do when you consider the other options. While the Vikings’ offensive coordinator is busy quitting and Dallas has a rookie quarterback, the Seahawks are going to roll along toward an almost-certain playoff spot.

Still, there are major concerns about their offense. Russell Wilson remains hobbled from the lower-body injuries that started to pile up at the beginning of the season, the running game is nonexistent, and the receiving corps has been inconsistent. They’ll figure all of that out in time, but expecting them to blow out the Bills in prime time is too tough a task right now.

Last week: 5–7–1
Overall record: 55–58–6