In 2014, a league executive sat down with me to talk about the NFL’s undeniable appeal as a television product. The sport certainly has its problems, but seemingly no matter what, the audience keeps climbing. That’s in part, the executive explained, because we’re seeing an annual increase in the number of NFL games that follow the perfect TV formula: more scoring and a smaller margin of victory, an endorphin-producing cocktail that keeps fans glued to their screens. Do you know why the league wants more passing and has legislated fewer liberties for defensive backs? Partly because it wants more games like Patriots-Cardinals, which 23.1 million people watched on Sunday night, and which New England won by two points.
This makes for exciting viewing, but it also makes for a very different brand of football: Teams’ ability to score massive chunks of points in short periods of time has changed not only how we watch, but also the way games are won or lost.
There were four one-point games last weekend, the most ever in Week 1, and that reinforced a takeaway that had already become clear: Teams that aren’t built to pull off big-yardage plays quickly will lose. The Lions beat the Colts because they were able to go 50 yards in 33 seconds, including a 22-yard pass to Marvin Jones that set up the winning 43-yard field goal.
These close, high-scoring matchups that serve as perfect TV creations are skyrocketing: From 2014 through Sunday, there were 22 games in which teams finished within four points of each other and combined for 65 or more points. Two of them occurred Sunday. There were 19 in all of the 1970s.
The late-game lead changes have been fueled by a stunning uptick in huge plays as time winds down. Remember how baseball went from being a bunt-and-manufacture-runs sport to a let’s-hit-three-run-homers league? Early adopters like Baltimore’s Earl Weaver were rare, but it took most in baseball until the 2000s to recognize that one massive play could be the turning point in a game. Now, the NFL is becoming a home run league as well.
In games that were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime in 2015, there were 114 plays of 30 yards or more (the Bears gave up 10, two more than anyone else). Four years ago, that number was 82 (and the Bears gave up zero!). Move the measuring stick to plays of 20 yards or more, and the total explodes from 229 in 2012 to 311 last year. Increasingly, whoever makes the most late big-yardage plays wins.
Why? Well, quarterbacks are more accurate than ever, and it’s now almost an unfair fight between freakish receivers and defensive backs. Some of that stems from the year-round seven-on-seven flag football leagues that have become ubiquitous in youth and high school football, where receivers get better while catching thousands of passes from every angle while defensive backs can’t really touch the receivers or practice anything resembling physical NFL cornerback play. “It’s a hell of a lot easier to find a receiver now than a guy who can cover him,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said during training camp.
Add in the generation of quarterbacks featuring deep-ball masters like Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Carson Palmer and the wave of impact tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed, and Travis Kelce, and you’ve got a handful of teams with an almost absurd ability to score quickly.
That means one thing for teams, fans, and gamblers alike: Good coaches and good cornerbacks are precious gifts. The Colts and Saints, two of the teams that lost these thrillers last week, have secondaries ill equipped to handle late onslaughts. Clock management is also more important than ever, because teams need their timeouts for the back-and-forth exchange of punches in the final two minutes. So, hey, Bruce Arians, don’t throw the ball while leading with less than two minutes. Hey, Chuck Pagano, don’t call a timeout when your team is about to score and you’re on offense with a little more than a minute left. Hey, Ron Rivera, don’t call a timeout for a challenge.
This week, one coach discussed the importance of hoarding second-half timeouts. He even practices different timeout scenarios with his team. His name is Jim Caldwell, and he won on Sunday with heady clock management, big plays, and a clear, concise plan to navigate these end-game scenarios. Jim Caldwell! A new era indeed. Now, on to the picks:
(Note: Home team in CAPS.)
CAROLINA (-14) 31, San Francisco 15
Remember the 2011 Sports Illustrated cover that featured Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, and Jake Locker and labeled the decision over which up-and-comer to draft the “toughest call in football”? Gabbert may be starting opposite Newton on Sunday, but compared to Cam, he and Locker both deserve to slowly fade out of that cover collage, Back to the Future–style.
Crappy players slip away, and so do crappy teams, especially recently: Last year, six games featured a line above 13, and no underdog covered. San Francisco may be 1–0, but that win came against the hapless Rams in a game so mind-numbingly dull, Panthers coach Ron Rivera fell asleep while watching it. The Niners are undeniably bad, and they’re traveling cross-country to play a morning game. This line could be 50, and I’d at least think about taking Carolina.
N.Y. GIANTS (-4.5) 34, New Orleans 28
The second weekend of the NFL season has yet to arrive, but already a Saints writer has felt compelled to detail why general manager Mickey Loomis won’t be getting fired. The team’s owner reportedly loves his GM, so it apparently doesn’t matter that C.J. Spiller, another in a long line of New Orleans flops, was cut this week, or that the team is in salary cap hell.
It’s a bleak time for Saints fans, though they do have one thing going for them: This team plays exciting games thanks to an incredible quarterback, Drew Brees, and a bad secondary that consistently lets teams back into the action. Brees delivered 423 passing yards last week — and his team lost. Saints fans will get used to that frustration this season, and that secondary will look even worse this week, as it tries to contain Odell Beckham Jr. without top corner Delvin Breaux, who’s out with a broken leg. We might also be sleeping on the Giants’ defensive line, which as Cowboys reporter David Helman noted, tackled Zeke Elliott on 15 of his 20 carries in the opener. No defense is going to shut down the Saints’ passing attack this year, but the Giants will do enough here — and they’ll certainly deliver enough offense to win.
Dallas (+3) 27, WASHINGTON 20
Some controversies can only be Cowboys controversies, and this week’s debate is straight out of Mr. Burns’s plot from The Simpsons: whether Jerry Jones should be able to control the sun and use it as a competitive advantage. While the sun may be the fall guy for Sunday’s loss to the Giants, some blame should also go to the too-high expectations for rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who was facing the league’s most improved defense in his first regular-season start.
This week will be different: The Redskins are playing on a short week, and even fresh, they proved incapable of tackling 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams. Dallas is going to be able to run right at Washington, and Prescott should be able to hit big passing plays when he needs to. Only three terrible offenses (the 49ers, Rams, and Bills) posted worse yards-per-completion numbers than the Cowboys last week, but the Boys don’t necessarily need to improve that number; they just need to make those short passes count. As for the Redskins: If Kirk Cousins has another bad game, people might start mentioning that this offseason he turned down $24 million guaranteed and a contract on par with Andy Dalton’s to play on the franchise tag. Oh wait. I just did.
NEW ENGLAND (-6.5) 21, Miami 9
This week Bill Belichick, the only human to ever pick Bon Jovi in the Bon Jovi–Bruce Springsteen New Jersey rocker debate, refused to elaborate on his love of Springsteen when asked of The Boss’s show in Foxborough. He’s too busy focusing on the Dolphins, whom he’s played peculiarly these past few years. The Patriots lost to a Dan Campbell–coached Miami team last year, a result Belichick called “sickening,” and one that cost the Pats home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. After seven consecutive Pats wins over the Dolphins from 2010 to 2013, Belichick’s crew has now lost three straight in Miami.
They’re still blowing out the Dolphins when the teams meet in Foxborough, however, and I expect that to continue on Sunday. The read on the Dolphins is that they would have beaten the Seahawks last week if they’d gotten better play from Ryan Tannehill. That’s true, but it’s also like saying Suicide Squad would have been a good movie if Daniel Day-Lewis had been in it. Tannehill is the Dolphins, and the Dolphins are Tannehill.
By the way, who did the Dolphins piss off in the NFL’s scheduling department? They took the NFL’s longest road trip last week to start Adam Gase’s coaching career, and now they get New England on the road. Then, after a bye next week (or close to it: They’re playing the Browns) they face the Bengals on the road in a Thursday-night game. Oof.
PITTSBURGH 28, Cincinnati (+3) 27
Consider this the opening round of the battle for the AFC North, and thus the conference’s spot in the Super Bowl. The Steelers have won five of six against the Bengals, and based on what they did to the defending NFC East champion Redskins on Monday night, they’re also apparently awesome. In my Week 1 picks, I said that Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger playing pitch-and-catch was enough to get the Steelers to 10 wins despite suspensions and injuries, and that might actually be true.
January’s meeting was one of the most intense we’ve ever seen, and Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is still serving the suspension that his meltdown in that contest earned him. This showdown will be a heated affair as well, and though I think the Bengals will keep cooler heads this time around, I expect a similar result. Even if A.J. Green continues to soar, I like the Steelers to deliver a late score to win by one.
DETROIT (-6) 30, Tennessee 17
The Forbes franchise value ranking came out this week, and these two teams are reportedly worth a combined $3.65 billion. The Lions were worth $844 million in 2012, but are now worth $1.65 billion despite failing to do a whole lot to better themselves. If you’re wondering why some ownership groups operate the way they do, this is your answer: They can hire guys like Mike Mularkey and Jim Caldwell, as these teams have, and still see their franchise values soar.
Pro Bowl defensive end Jurrell Casey was a certified offensive line wrecker on Sunday, hitting the quarterback twice and recording a tackle for loss on just 46 snaps. He may be the Titans’ best player, and Mularkey went full Mularkey when discussing him, saying that he’d like to play him less to keep him fresh. That makes no sense, but it’s far from the only head-scratcher that this coaching matchup is providing. Caldwell called Marcus Mariota a “triple threat,” which is not a thing, and the real mismanagement fireworks could come on game day.
The Lions will win this game because they can score points and the Titans can’t. Despite preaching the run game all summer, the Titans couldn’t even play the clock-management game effectively in the opener, giving the Vikings two defensive touchdowns, including a 77-yard pick-six. Maybe Mariota’s third threat is helping the other team score?
Kansas City (+2) 20, HOUSTON 17
If you spill a 2-liter bottle of soda on the carpet and do a nice job of cleaning it up, does that make the whole experience a positive? Or should you not have spilled the soda in the first place? That’s the question facing the Chiefs after they scored 23 unanswered points to impressively beat the Chargers — but had to score 23 unanswered points because they were getting rocked by an awful team at home. Of course, the Texans didn’t exactly impress against a Bears team that was banged up and also was the Bears.
This is a weird time for the Chiefs: They may be without their two starting guards, their running back depth is messy with Jamaal Charles out and Spencer Ware not practicing because of a sprained toe, and they go Jets-Steelers-Raiders after this. But boy did they clobber the Texans when it mattered, drubbing them 30–0 in last year’s playoffs. Do you think the Texans got that much better in the offseason? Exactly.
Baltimore (-6.5) 31, CLEVELAND 10
Don’t discount how bad that 13–7 Ravens-Bills game was last week. John Harbaugh’s team won, and yet at the time of this writing, the top sports stories on the Baltimore Sun’s website were: “Ravens still trying to determine their game breakers,” “Ravens seeking to shore up protection after Joe Flacco got sacked four times Sunday,” “Devin Hester emphasizes patience,” and a story about C.J. Mosley and Breshad Perriman, among others, being hurt. The Ravens won the game! But it was a low-grade version of the Rams-49ers game, which means we all lost, including the 53 guys who won.
Even after that, I still think the Ravens will destroy the Browns, simply because the Browns were destroyed by the Eagles last week and the Ravens are better than the Eagles. This is what the Browns do: They get destroyed.
Seattle 24 (-6.5), LOS ANGELES 14
Jeff Fisher does a few things well: He grows a nice mustache, he manages to stay employed (he’s apparently in line for a three-year extension), and he historically plays the Seahawks close. The Rams have covered in six of their past eight games against the Seahawks despite having been quintessentially Rammy during this period, and despite the Seahawks having contended for a Super Bowl every year in that span.
But this Rams team has a different feel. Monday night’s loss to San Francisco was an implosion: You could see how frustrated the team’s best player, Aaron Donald, was as he got ejected. I don’t think this is going to be the typical good-defense-and-keep-it-close Rams team; I think this could be a god-awful Rams team. The best headline of the week was that Case Keenum “didn’t trust himself” in the loss. Buddy, join the club.
DENVER (-6) 23, Indianapolis 16
The Colts’ offensive line held up well against Detroit, but the Broncos’ pass rushers are much better than the Lions’ — and when they do get to the quarterback, it gets brutal quickly. Andrew Luck was sacked twice last week, but this will be the first real test of how he handles taking massive hits after missing much of last season with a lacerated kidney. I’m betting he’s recovered and can keep this competitive, but I’m also betting the Broncos want to hit him as much as possible to find out. Meanwhile, here’s a great nugget from the Indy Star: In the 65-game Chuck Pagano era, the Colts have trailed by 10-plus points in the first half 27 times, tying Jacksonville, Oakland, and Miami in that regard. In that same period, objectively good teams Cincinnati, New England, Seattle, Carolina, and Green Bay have trailed by 10-plus points the least amount. Huh.
That nugget, incidentally, is in a story that says Pagano has no regrets about the aforementioned fourth-quarter game-management debacle in which he took a timeout that stopped the clock and gave more time for Matthew Stafford to pick apart the Colts’ secondary. Chuck Pagano, people!
OAKLAND (-5) 28, Atlanta 17
Some quick Atlanta analysis: The Falcons are bad.
Some longer Oakland analysis: The Raiders are genuinely good. Derek Carr recently revealed that Kobe Bryant is his hero and that he wants to employ a “Mamba mentality.” This obviously doesn’t bode well for Carr’s final season in 2029, when he makes coaches call 83 pass plays per game, but it speaks to the highly enjoyable vibe of this Raiders team. On Sunday, Oakland became the fourth team in NFL history and the first since the forgettable 2008 Broncos to win on a two-point conversion in the last minute of a game. If that win proves to be a key building block on the way to Oakland’s return to prominence, it won’t be forgotten. Jack Del Rio went for the win — and then went after ESPN’s statistics Twitter feed.
Imagine if Al Davis were still around and someone had to explain the concept of Twitter trolling to him.
ARIZONA 30 (-7), Tampa Bay 21
Bad news: In Week 1, Arizona looked like a candidate to implode. Good news: The Cardinals will be saved by the scheduling gods. This week they play the Bucs, who are fine, and then go Bills-Rams-49ers, the three worst passing teams in the league in Week 1. The Cards don’t play a genuinely good team again until mid-October and should get back on track by teeing off defensively against lesser competition.
Even so, there are some real reasons for concern. They didn’t look like Super Bowl contenders against a Brady- and Gronk-less Pats team, and worse, they followed a bad showing with complaints: Honey Badger isn’t happy with his current role, and the GM feels embarrassed. Arizona will be able to regroup well enough to beat a young Bucs team that slaughtered a bad Falcons team last week and will have a good record by midseason, but this is now about the Cards’ long-term viability as a contender. Super Bowl champions — which I still think they can be — usually navigate choppy waters better than this.
Jacksonville (+3) 24, SAN DIEGO 20
These two bad teams suffered two very different losses last week: The Jags hung around with Green Bay, played the Packers tight, and kept Aaron Freaking Rodgers from breaking 200 yards passing, but never got over the hump in the fourth quarter. Respectable performance, palatable loss. The Chargers, meanwhile, led the Chiefs 21–3 at halftime and lost not only the game, but also no. 1 receiver Keenan Allen, who’s out for the season with a knee injury. The Jaguars are improving; the Chargers aren’t.
MINNESOTA (+3) 26, Green Bay 21
For the next few weeks, the Vikings and Packers will play games in which they both have the chance to break out. At some point, Minnesota’s rushing game, potentially competent passing game, and defense will all click, and the Vikings will beat a good team by 30 points. The same is true of the Packers: One Sunday, Jordy Nelson will be fully healthy, and the offense will have the spacing it needs to put up 40 on some poor unsuspecting saps who were preparing for just an above-average offense.
Neither of these teams is a finished product, and the one that finds its form quickest will win the division, which is part of what makes this game so intriguing. I like the Vikings here because the defense looked even better than I expected in Week 1, delivering two defensive touchdowns. If Sam Bradford looks decent Sunday in what’s likely to be his first start, the Vikes might become the early favorite in the division.
CHICAGO (-3) 21, Philadelphia 17
I like Carson Wentz, and I think he’s going to win a lot of games for the Eagles. But I also think beating the Browns in Week 1 should go alongside Ohio State taking care of Tulsa last weekend. Facing the Browns is like playing Madden on “Rookie” mode, so we shouldn’t put too much stock into the performance at this point.
There are two ways to think about the Bears, meanwhile: Either they’re a mistake-prone mess bound for a lost season after their alleged new game-breaking receiver’s lone Week 1 contribution was running a bad route that led to a costly interception, or they were simply rusty and can eke out a 9–7 season and save everyone’s job. (Yes, 9–7 is the ceiling. Sorry, Chicago.) Jay Cutler was sacked five times in the opener, and as Philly’s Malcolm Jenkins said this week, Cutler’s “an entirely different quarterback” when pressured. The Texans’ pass rush is much better than the Eagles’, though, so Cutler is unlikely to hit the ground as often this week. I think the Bears are better than they seem, but proving that starts with beating Wentz in Chicago. If they can’t do that, then forget what I just said: They’re trash and Wentz is a god.
Kevin proudly boasts that he went 10–5–1 in Week 1.