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How to Watch Bad Football

This weekend’s early slate is the stuff of NFL nightmares. Plus, three more thoughts ahead of Week 5.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Paul McCartney and John Lennon met in a church in Liverpool. Bill Walsh invented the horizontal passing attack eventually known as the West Coast offense because a gifted vertically passing quarterback got hurt. Sometimes things just come together. Like with the early NFL games this Sunday: a convergence of matchups so bad that it’s beautiful. Call it the one-p.m.-pocalpyse.

There’s a heavy concentration of average teams this year; there’s only one game between two teams with winning records in Week 5. That’s probably due to some bad luck, some leaguewide injury problems, and some teams with older stars knowing they can start slow. (New England, for instance, looks average at the moment, but it likely won’t by December.) The issue with Sunday’s early games isn’t even just that there aren't any marquee matchups; it doesn’t look like there are any games with the potential for excitement. The old boxing adage is that “styles make fights,” and I’m not expecting much style on Sunday. But we’ll watch, because it’s Sunday and it’s football, so here’s how to do it.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Indianapolis Colts

Why It Is Bad: The Colts’ offense, which is 30th in yards per play, got a glimmer of hope this week when Andrew Luck started practicing again after missing the first four games with a shoulder injury. He’s the only intriguing thing about the Colts, but he’s still not playing this week, and the Colts offense without him has been held under 20 points in three of four games. As for the Niners, there’s a growing chorus suggesting that Brian Hoyer should be benched in favor of … uh … third-round pick C.J. Beathard. In a San Jose Mercury News article detailing why this won’t happen, the writer says that the team, separate from Hoyer, has made a critical mass of “unusual mistakes.” Still, Hoyer’s not helping:

Watch this game at your peril.

What You Can Watch For: Hey, DeForest Buckner looks pretty good.

New York Jets vs. Cleveland Browns

Why It Is Bad: This is a cliché of a terrible game. If Jets-Browns excites you, it means you have a gambling problem or you are a member of the McCown family. It’s not even the worst among this slate of games—Giants-Chargers is shaping up as an all-time awful game—but it’s the most symbolic. Generations from now you’ll have to explain to your kids why Giants-Chargers was bad, but you will never have to do that with Jets-Browns.

What You Can Watch For: Hey, Myles Garrett is playing.

Tennessee Titans vs. Miami Dolphins

Why It Is Bad: The Dolphins have the worst offense in the NFL by yards per play and by the eye test. They hit a low last week when Jay Cutler failed to even move on a Wildcat play when he split out as a wide receiver, and then the team made it worse by bending over backward to clarify that, no, the play was designed for Cutler to be a low-energy non-entity. Now that’s some good play design.

It’s not clear why the Dolphins offense is bad, except for the obvious: They signed a guy who, until training camp, was supposed to be in the Fox booth and then asked him to run an offense with a bunch of weapons. The flaw in this theory is that Cutler seems unable to get the ball anywhere near those weapons, instead spiking the ball into his receivers’ feet—or worse:

As for the Titans, Marcus Mariota is battling a hamstring injury, they gave up 57 points to the Houston Texans, and they just signed Brandon Weeden.

What You Can Watch For: I want to see that Wildcat play again, and I want to see Weeden get some game action. Let’s do this.

Los Angeles Chargers vs. New York Giants

Why It Is Bad: Here it is: the perfect bad game. To have a truly terrible game, you don’t need just two bad teams; you need an extra layer of misery stacked up on it. Here are two teams predicted to make the playoffs by one of the hosts of The Ringer NFL Show. Just last winter, the Giants seemed like one of the most talented teams in the league, while the Chargers had an exciting roster and didn’t play their games in an empty MLS stadium. The Browns are bad because they have no talent on their roster. These teams are bad in the same way that Mother! is: a lot of talented and accomplished people combine forces, and it’s a bigger disaster than anyone could’ve imagined. Also, the Chargers just cut their only cool player:

What You Can Watch For: Nothing.

Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Why It Is Bad: Before the season, there were suggestions that the Bills and Jets might be tanking. I thought so. That wasn’t true—or they’re both trying to tank and failing. Either way, this Bills team is interesting, and they just beat the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. However, there are more exciting teams: The Bills are 28th in yards per play and 31st in pass yards per game, and they are one of only six teams to be averaging fewer than 3.5 yards per carry in the ground game. (All six of those teams are playing in this batch of 1 p.m. games, by the way.) Meanwhile, the Bengals have one of the worst offensive lines in the league and have played some of the ugliest games this season—I’m looking at you, “Texans 13, Bengals 9.”

What You Can Watch For: If the Bills win, I’m on the bandwagon, and you should be, too. I don’t think they are much better than mediocre, but in a wild AFC East where the Patriots seem like they have the worst defense in the league, this pesky Buffalo team, led by a likable head coach, could give Bill Belichick and Co. a fun run.

Also, I’m intrigued with the number of thumb injuries in Buffalo:

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Why It Is Bad: I’m all in on the powers of Shad Khan’s mustache. “I couldn’t recognize myself today without a mustache,” Khan told Sports Illustrated this week. “That’s the mojo.” I’m waiting to be in on the Jaguars, though. Jacksonville is a bizarre team. The Jags can blow out the Texans and Ravens, two legitimately decent teams, and lose to the Jets and get blown out by a Titans team that just gave up 57 points to the Texans. Stylistically, I am not particularly enthused about watching them—they’ve thrown for less than 250 yards in each of their four games, which seems impossible in the modern era. Instead, they’ve opted for a Leonard Fournette–heavy run offense. Tom Coughlin might enjoy it, but I do not. We’ll see if it works against the Steelers, who lost to a Mike Glennon–era Bears team two weeks ago and then dismantled the Ravens last week. I don’t know who Pittsburgh is, either.

What You Can Watch For: If the Jags win this one, two things happen: (1) the Steelers would fall to 3-2 despite clearing what was supposed to be a soft part of their schedule, and (2) I WOULD BELIEVE IN THE JAGS! The stakes are high.

Arizona Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Why It Is Bad: I like the Eagles, but the Cardinals have failed to score more than 23 points in a single game this year, so I’m not expecting any fireworks. Two years ago, the Cardinals were one of the best teams in the NFL; this year, they rank 22nd in points for and 20th in points against. They are 2-2 but only because the schedule gods blessed them with the Colts and 49ers—both of whom took Arizona to overtime. Football Outsiders says they’ve had the 29th-hardest schedule so far. The Eagles are 3-1, but have racked up wins against the Chargers and Giants, both of whom we don’t need to say any more about. I think the Eagles can be pretty good and Football Outsiders gives them the seventh-easiest schedule from here on out, but this one isn’t gonna be pretty.

What You Can Watch For: Larry Fitzgerald won the 49ers game last week in overtime, and who doesn’t want another year of Fitz being a contributor? He’s also really into this baseball thing.

Carolina Panthers vs. Detroit Lions

Why It Is Bad: Wait—this game is actually OK!

Look at what Christian McCaffrey does to defenses:

Although the Panthers’ rebound game last week came against that struggling Patriots defense, I’m kind of intrigued here. Especially because of this nugget from Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit, who says that Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton are in the discussion for best deep sideline thrower. THAT MEANS EXCITING FOOTBALL.

What You Can Watch For: Everything? You should watch this!

Three More Thoughts for Sunday and Monday

1. Chiefs-Texans is going to be awesome. One of the things that will define this NFL season is a passing of the torch between established names and the younger generation. On Sunday night, we’ll get to see two of the potential future faces of the NFL. Houston’s Deshaun Watson looks like a star, and at this point Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt is his only competition for Rookie of the Year.

2. Trubiskyyyyyyy! The no. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft gets his first professional start. RIP, Mike Glennon. Remember the good times:

3. Will Packers-Cowboys be a great game? Yes, the 1 p.m. slate sucks, but before the season began, this looked like it might be one of the games of the season. The Cowboys have the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL, and against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers that group gets to prove that they’re at least average, which seems to be the minimum for them to be seriously considered as contenders. Rodgers, meanwhile, has spent the past few weeks throwing incredible passes despite a banged-up offensive line.

I don’t expect that to stop.