We’re going to keep it simple this year. 8 picks this week against the spread for Week 1. 5 picks against the spread every Sunday thereafter. Quick picks for Mondays and Thursdays.
Folie à Debut
With all of the banter against the NFL regarding its unnecessary violence, I don’t know where to begin the argument against the unnecessary and illegitimate fight you all paid to watch in the UFC last night. There is no denying mixed martial arts as an entertainment spectacle. We were all watching last night. However, with the litany of failed drug tests conveniently leaked after the fight in many of its most prominent stars and the very fact that winning and losing in the octagon is more often than not the result of haphazard decision-making against haphazard flying limbs, it’s become harder and harder for me with each passing pay-per-view as I give MMA a chance to consider it a true competitive sport. Dana White should be credited for a passable ranking system, and for better-utilizing themes such as redemptions and comebacks in mixed martial arts to create watchable fights where other combat sports have failed, but two things have become clear this year: none of his most popular and successful fighters can stay on top long enough to generate objectively that they belonged there to begin with, and he just plugged a warm body into a pay-per-view card for eyeballs. True competitive sports don’t do that, but nobody in the general public seemed to care that much. It appears that we don’t so much abhor violence in sports so much as were continually looking for a better place to put it.
An especially sharp barb is deserved here for CM Punk, who turned the past two years of his life into a self-promotional, illegitimate, egomaniacal version of The Joy of Painting. There’s obviously nothing wrong with a career change in and of itself, but his face and voice had become painstakingly unpalatable as he time and time and time again instructed the rest of us to consider him a humble guy who simply wanted to learn as he racked up TV appearances instead of amateur experience, and essentially stole a prime piece of real estate at the top of this industry from someone who sincerely could have used it. In what is hopefully the last we see of him in the UFC, Punk made sure after knowingly defrauding the paying public of a real fight by not putting up one that we all knew how much HE enjoyed himself, how much HE thinks he means to some kid on the street who’s already asleep by now, and how HE is somehow a bigger man by his balls alone for trying something most people wouldn’t do. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing what you want to do in life, but if you have to instruct the rest of us on how to feel about it for this long, perhaps a longer look in the mirror is warranted.
That being said, in an era where everything can be publicly recorded by a stranger with a cell phone camera and scrutinized to fuck by millions of people sitting at home in their underwear, you almost HAVE to be a sociopathic narcissist who doesn’t think they’ve ever screwed up or done anything wrong to even put yourself out there like this to begin with. In a way, Punk’s foray into mixed martial arts is a microcosm of our two current Presidential candidates, who both have foregone any pragmatic solution to a single real American problem in favor of picking through a series of past transgressions (and to be fair, they’re some pretty fucked up transgressions) that cannot be changed, nor will they as our culture and economy continues to circle the drain.
By comparison, a few concussions might not be so bad.
Oh, Right. Football!
Arizona (-7) over New England – It’s become more and more apparent throughout the week that Belichick is conceding this game and keeping his team healthy for the final 3/4 of the season, when Tom Brady returns and the Patriots can all che-I-mean get on the same page. New England will dink and dunk to perfection and hope for mistakes from Palmer and Co. (The Super Bowl game plan vs. the Rams, in essence), and if it can’t win that way, so be it. Cardinals 30, New England 20.
That being said, with all the drama going on in the other 3 teams of the AFC East, I’m surprised more people aren’t hammering that over on Miami. They are absolutely not making the playoffs, but they’re not devoid of talent, coaching, or defensive stars either. This could be a very passable 8-8 or 9-7 year for the Dolphins if the other 3 teams in the division continue this turmoil. If the public is so willing to hammer the Pats up and the Bills and Jets down, how do the Dolphins not slide up into 2nd place?
Chicago (+5) over Houston – I don’t think Chicago is going to surprise anyone this year at all, but I’m surprised we’re taking a team like Houston, who backed into the playoffs last year and has entirely too many new pieces at crucial offensive spots to gel in Week 1 to get this kind of favoritism. This line was 7 at one point, and has rightfully dipped. I have, and always will, take John Fox against an inexperienced QB he knows. A couple of Cutler jump balls later, and this one will at least be close. Bears 23, Texans 20.
If you’re of the belief that football is a young man’s game (it is), then the Jaguars, who definitively have the best U-25 talent of any team in the NFL have to be your sleeper team of 2016, and they’re precisely in the dumpster fire of a division to do it. While Houston’s roster definitely deserves consideration 1-53, the move at QB and the move to get Lamar Miller as a feature back is going to take a year to truly figure out. Jacksonville had such a year in 2015 and IS figured out. Their pass rush is real, their receivers don’t quit on 50/50 balls, and they can stress a team vertically on offense to the point where they’ll make big plays downfield to make up for whatever projected mistakes Bortles is going to make. This will be the year Gus Bradley finally implants the Seattle philosophy in North Florida and wins Coach of the Year.
While it’s all nice-nice to talk about Cinderella stories in this division, the reason Cinderella gets to dance is really due to how badly the Colts have kept the castle. Indianapolis has all but ensured Andrew Luck won’t be getting to a Super Bowl in the next five years by plugging in aging free agents when they thought they were close to one (and they weren’t), thinking he doesn’t need as much protection because of his mobility (he does), and trading away draft picks that could have been used to build skill position players around him. Indy is going to bottom out before it gets better, and essentially needs to if they want their $140M man to be worth the price of admission.
Browns (+3.5) over Eagles – I need someone to tell me how the fuck Carson Wentz is favored by more than three points at home when he’s never started an NFL game in his life and has been nursing a rib injury throughout the preseason to the point where we have even less of an idea versus other debuting QBs what to expect from him. This is utter nonsense. The Browns have huge targets and can absolutely make enough plays to win this game. Who the hell are the Eagles to be favored like this? Take the points. Browns 27, Eagles 17.
This is a prototypical Steelers year in that they’ll win 10-11 games, beat an inexperienced team on Wild Card weekend that isn’t ready for them, generate a shit ton of fake buzz in the Divisional Round against a better opponent, then fall flat on their faces against said opponent and we project them to win the Super Bowl next year. Odd thing is, the Steelers absolutely WERE my pick to go to the Super Bowl if the Martavis Bryant suspension didn’t happen. Without that 2nd downfield threat, Brown isn’t going to get all the real estate he had last year to go underneath and make plays. I still think they have enough to take this division, but they are going to have to run over a pissed-off and stiff-hitting Bengals team to do it. Both of those games are going to be must-see television, and if we’re fortunate, we’ll get a third one in January.
What’s that you say? What about the Ravens? Well, what ABOUT them? The team that is still relying on Steve Smith at the age of 36? The team that cut its own starting tailback and resigned him after he’s done nothing but come through for them for two years? The team that’s counting on Joe Flacco to come back from a severe knee injury right away? I can wait a year before jumping on that wagon again.
Chiefs (-7) over Chargers – While it’s certainly easy to buy into the Raiders hype train (and essentially I am, taking them as a 5 seed in the AFC), the Chiefs are the true masterpiece of this division, and they are going to be on full display at home against a Chargers team that wants nothing to do with playing professional football in 2016. The Chargers will have the first pick in the draft in 2017. Just as Andy Reid did to the Texans in Houston last year in Week 1, his West Coast concepts are going to jump on the San Diego DBs early with crossing routes, get them tired, and not look back. When an Andy Reid team gets rolling on offense, there are too many permutations in his play calling to be predictably defended week-to-week, and he tends to not lose. KC starts strong, stays strong, and uses its home-field advantage to beat out what will be an exceedingly tough division. Chiefs 33, Chargers 13.
If you’re buying into the Jaguars winning big this year on a trove of young talent, you essentially by extension have to buy the Raiders with regard to talent in their prime. I love how they’ve built their team (which DOES include Derek Carr falling into their lap, but still…), but this division is TOUGH and that Denver defense is still there twice a year. While many are picking the AFC North to supply Wild Cards based on how they project to treat the AFC South and NFC East (more on that later), I think the West is where it’s at. If you believe in defense, experienced coaching, and mismatch designs on offense over pure talent, this division projects to be the best of the eight.
Giants (-1) over Cowboys – Hello? Dallas Cowboys? This is the professional football calling. We’re trying to find out why you’re starting a rookie QB, rookie RB, and a horrendous defense coached by an illegitimate figurehead and are somehow still projected to win 8 games, much less this one. As has been the case for a dozen years now, the media have decided the preseason is meaningless until it can become an excuse to shit on Eli Manning’s facial expressions. The Giants’ O-line is deplorable, Victor Cruz doesn’t look like he’ll even catch 35 balls this year, and their tight end situation will cost them at LEAST one home game this year, but this division is literally writhing on the floor and dying to get out of the Giants’ way if they feel like winning it with a dynamic passing game and an average defense. Giants 34, Cowboys 28.
That being said, I think this division will be tougher on the rest of the NFC than expected. A glance around the conference doesn’t offer much, and a team with an at least organized passing attack like the Redskins have appear to be the closest thing to a viable 6 seed.
Falcons (-3) over Buccaneers – The key to Carolina’s success over the past few years has been the simple fact that they are the biggest, baddest, most physical team in the league, and go short on strategy while going long on wearing you the fuck out. Problem with that? You eventually wear out, and I think the Cam Newton struggles in Week 1 are a harbinger of this team finally running out of gas in the second half of the season. That opens the door for Atlanta, whom everyone has seemingly forgotten about despite having real playmakers on offense, a real home-field advantage, and a Week 1 opponent they’re accustomed to drumming at home. Falcons 31, Bucs 20. All that has to happen for one of these +500 and above divisional bets to win is for Carolina to get hurt and run out of steam. Take a shot and thank me later.
Oh, and don’t take that shot on New Orleans, whose coach will already be eyeing his next gig with the decline of Drew Brees’ arm (don’t give me numbers; watch him play; he’s done), and whose general manager thought after putting up arguably the worst 3-year defensive showing of any team in NFL history that Coby Fleener was the answer. Brees will get his numbers, and the Saints will take another step backwards.
Tennessee (+3) over Minnesota – I have never seen a team who has accomplished absolutely nothing in recent years lose it’s starting QB to a gruesome non-contact injury receive the number of fluff pieces the 2016 Minnesota Vikings received this year. I like Mike Zimmer as much as the next guy, and I don’t think they’ll completely bottom out, but the notion that this team will still be a force to be reckoned with this year, MUCH less being 3 point road favorites against a Titans team that showed it can do some things on offense to wear teams down physically, is repulsive. Shaun Hill isn’t saving the day, and Minnesota will simply have to wait another year. Titans 24, Vikings 21.
By the way, if you want to gauge just how much respect Vegas has for Bill Belichick, he’s without his starting QB for 4 games and is still -240 to win his division. Aaron Rodgers has all his horses back and is -250 to win his.
I would also not spit a September obituary on the Lions either, who finally have the team speed on offense that their dome caters to, and don’t have to worry about or feed Calvin Johnson the ball 15 times a game. This could be a really nice developmental year for Matthew Stafford in his new offense, and if the Packers hit the skids the wrong way, they could surprise a TON of people this year. I’m gonna give Detroit a year to figure this out.
Seahawks (-10.5) over Dolphins – The only team in the NFL that I share a high feeling on with the rest of the civilized world equally are the Seattle Seahawks, who in addition to getting their defensive swag back will absolutely be a nightmare to deal with on offense. They will be the most balanced run-pass team in the league, and they will have perfected “changing the launch point” with rolling pockets. The only way to get past Seattle is right through them man on man, and they’re not budging until at least January. Seahawks 37, Dolphins 14.
The team that won’t be changing their launch point is Arizona, and while I do think they’re going to beat up all the bad teams on their schedule, they are going to absolutely have enough Palmer duds to keep them out of the playoffs. I absolutely adore Carson Palmer, but his delivery isn’t getting any faster, and teams are going to pick up on how little they used the intermediate pass game last year, and force him into it by taking away the deep throws he made so well last year.
Coach of the Year – Gus Bradley
MVP – Russell Wilson
Comeback Player of the Year – Kelvin Benjamin
OPOY – Odell Beckham
DPOY – Khalil Mack
OROY – Ezekiel Elliott
DROY – Myles Jack
Steve: “Just gimme the Browns”
I’m going TEN-MIN