Things are not always what they seem. The Dolphins, Patriots and other 3-0 teams might not be that good. The Falcons and other 1-2 teams may not be that bad. The Giants may be playing a totally different sport. The NFL's British advisors may be trying a little too hard to act British. The Browns could suffer more disarray after a win than a loss, and the Jets might actually be better than advertised … though in fairness, the Jets were not "advertised" in the traditional sense. Game Riffs has a four-question litmus test to apply to many of the Week 4 contenders. Who will pass? Who will fail? Who will order bangers and mash? Who will order dangerous pizza? Read on to find out!
Patriots at Falcons
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Falcons by 1
Meaningful Week 4 NFL analysis requires us to ask four questions of each team:
- Who have you played?
- Who has been healthy?
- How have you won or lost?
- How has it been covered?
The last question is crucial. None of us are immune from magical TwinkleBrady or Fire Everybody storylines, and it is easy to forget that out-of-spotlight teams do the same things that buzzy teams do: endure injuries, win or lose on last second plays, cope with good and bad luck.
For the Patriots, the answers to the four questions are:
- Two teams with rookie quarterbacks who did not even have full training camps to prepare, and one whose quarterback is acting like he dreams of selling real estate three years from now.
- None of the Patriots' key receivers.
- Last minute field-goal drive against weak opponent, late defensive stand in pouring rain against weak opponent, slow-developing blowout of weak opponent.
- A mix of Chicken Little "dream has died" histrionics and magical TwinkleBrady, which is how every narrow Patriots victory since 2006 has been covered.
Here are the Falcons' answers:
- Two currently-undefeated teams on the road, both of whom took major steps to improve themselves in the offseason. Also, the compellingly awful (occasionally awfully compelling) Rams.
- Not Roddy White, even when he has played. Not Steven Jackson. Julio Jones has also played through injuries; both White and Jones took numerous snaps off against the Dolphins. Left tackle Sam Baker also missed the Dolphins game.
- Impressive final Falcons drive falls three-yards short versus Saints; basic weird Rams game; impressive final drive by the Dolphins does not come up short.
- No one covers the Falcons anymore because the whole Matt Ryan/Mike Smith/Deep Playoff Run routine of theirs is soooooo 2011.
After answering all four questions honestly, it is easy to see that the early-season differences between the Falcons and Patriots come down to the differences between a trip to New Orleans to face Drew Brees and a trip to Buffalo to face a rookie making his first start after 33 preseason passes, or facing the Dolphins when everything is clicking instead of the unclickable Buccaneers. Both the Patriots and Falcons are perennial playoff teams enduring skill-position injury crises. Play-for-play, the Falcons may be a little better than the Patriots; that would be a safer assertion if they could get through a special teams play without incident or penalty.
Week 4 analysis is tricky, especially with an all-pro tight end in "game-time decision" limbo. Sunday night should bring some equity, if not clarity.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Patriots 17
* * *
Eagles at Broncos
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Broncos by 12
For years, Peyton Manning executed the fastest offense in the NFL. That offense was effective because it was fast, but it was also effective because Peyton Manning was running it. Personnel and scheme go hand-in-glove; one rarely truly "makes" the other.
Michael Vick is many things -- many, many, many things -- but he did not have the career and life he has had by being the most reliable snap-decider. The second biggest obstacle standing in the way of Chip Kelly's offense right now is Chip Kelly's offense: Vick and LeSean McCoy are going to gouge some defenses on the ground, but eventually a series will hinge on Michael Vick's judgment. Which is better than it was a few years ago, but still …
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of Chip Kelly's offense is Chip Kelly's (or coordinator Bill Davis') defense. Line up the Broncos receivers against the Eagles secondary, and it's hard to find a matchup that the Broncos don't win outright, easily. An up-tempo offense will just get Peyton Manning the ball faster.
And, of course, the fastest offense in the NFL right now belongs not to the Eagles (second) or Broncos (seventh), but the Buffalo Bills, who take just 20.6 seconds per offensive play. Yes, Football Outsiders keeps track of this stuff instead of just talking about it. The pace data is broken down many ways, and the Eagles do rank first in "situation neutral" pace, which accounts for the Bills playing catch-up and the Broncos sitting on leads. Doug Marrone may yet out-Kelly Kelly. But both of the rookie coaches could really use a decision maker like Peyton Manning.
Prediction: Broncos 41, Eagles 27
* * *
Seahawks at Texans
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 2 ½
Texans fans are desperate for a sign that this year will be different, that their season will not end with a listless performance on Jan. 11 in Foxborough or Denver (or Miami or even … shudder … Cincinnati). The Texans instead held up a sign against the Ravens which read: BUSINESS AS USUAL, NOTHING TO SEE HERE. Texans fans have seen this all before. The opponent's return man racing up the sideline with no Texans near him. The endless penalties. The red-zone offense that suddenly becomes a field-goal dispensary against any good opponent. If these are the 2013 Texans, then they are the 2011 and 2012 Texans, and fans can be forgiven for wanting a little more.
Instead of looking for signs and portents, we should be looking for weaknesses in the Seahawks. That will take some doing. How about some non-overwhelming strengths? The Seahawks running game is grinding its gears this year, though Panthers and 49ers defenses had a lot to do with that. Their offense has been slow to get going in each of their first three games -- they have just scored seven first-quarter points -- but their defense is so good that Russell Wilson can just hand off and wait for the field to tilt his way. The average Seahawks starting drive starts on the 34.3-yard line, the second-best field position in the NFL (the Chiefs are better; yes, there's a "Jaguars effect"), so the Seahawks never have to travel far to score, or score very often to win.
If the Texans can jump out to a big lead against the NFL's best defense, scoring some early touchdowns instead of field goals, maybe they can take the Seahawks out of their comfort zone and pull an upset. Now, that really would be a sign!
Prediction: Seahawks 22, Texans 13
* * *
Steelers vs. Vikings (in London)
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Steelers by 1
Say, you know what the Steelers need right now? A transatlantic flight. Nothing cures an injury-plagued, lifeless offense and a bickering locker room like nine hours on a plane with Todd Haley. Can you imagine nine hours on a plane with Todd Haley? Does Bose make "gibbering madman cancelling headphones?"
And is this trip really necessary? The NFL does not understand Great Britain at all. They hired an NFL UK Managing Director named Alistair Kirkwood (so far, so good) who told the Telegraph that a "tripling" of the fanbase would be necessary before London could support an NFL franchise. Trebling, buddy: The English pronounce it trebling, or at least they do on Downton Abbey, which we all know is an accurate depiction of 21st-century life and pronunciation in the UK. "Alistair Kirkwood" is an obvious alias, pal: Your real name is Joshua Morgenstern, you live in Forest Hill, and you caught the NFL's attention by playing the butler in a repository production of Howard's End. No one is fooled.
Londoners might prefer American football if the NFL had not sent teams abroad with a combined 38-60 record in the last seven seasons. We sent Tom Brady twice, which seemed like a good idea until the Patriots clobbered two opponents by a combined 80-14 score. We sent the Buccaneers, which made Malcolm Glazer happy but will neither triple nor treble anything. We are sending two winless teams this week, and … the Jaguars. My God, we are sending the Jaguars next month.
So Great Britain will yawn, and America will be treated to the usual tourist stories of Ben Roethlisberger eating bangers and mash, Troy Polamalu at Piccadilly Circus and Haley and Mike Tomlin at Stonehenge. (They will determine that it was used as a sacrificial altar … for running backs who fumbled.) And of course, the jetlag stories. I refuse to comb the Web for news of which team arrived which day and what effect that might have on their preparation and conditioning, a dreary annual tradition of the international games.
Jetlag will not be as much of a problem for the Vikings, anyway. Adrian Peterson walked to England.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Steelers 20
* * *
Ravens at Bills
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Ravens by 3
Jacoby Jones may be rehabbing an injured knee, but that does not mean that he can hang around party busses at 3 a.m. and get clobbered about the dome by champagne bottle-wielding striphostessers. "What do you want to be known for?" John Harbaugh demanded of his players after the Jones incident. Presumably, "I want to be known as a returner elusive enough to dodge a stripper with a champagne bottle in a party bus" was not the right answer.
It's all so tawdry. Back in the day, when a "femme fatale" clunked Humphrey Bogart over the head with a champagne bottle outside a nightclub, a Raymond Chandler narration kicked in. I woke with a handkerchief in my mouth and my head ringing like a mission bell on Palm Sunday. The last thing I remember is little miss Sweat Pea christening my neck like the Queen Mary. A couple of jagged-looking palookas were ready to work me over; they were Jimmy Harbaugh's gang, and they weren't here for a social call. "You shouldn't have sold me out. On my birthday, no less," said Bryant McKinnie, inexplicably portrayed by Peter Lorre.
Instead, we get TMZ. TMZ, you are no Raymond Chandler. And Jacoby, you are no Bogey.
Maybe EJ Manuel is Bogey: He's tough, he's cool and he battles through impossible odds. Has any rookie quarterback had it harder than Manuel? He got rushed into the lineup because his veteran mentor slipped on a welcome mat. He rushed back from knee surgery because his team was out of options. He faced Bill Belichick in his debut, then beat a Panthers team with an underrated defense, then faced Rex Ryan and the Jets defense in New York. Now, he must face the defending champions, who are known to be pretty good on defense. Next week's opponent, the Browns, will probably trade two No. 1 picks for J.J. Watt and Von Miller.
That Manuel is hanging tough through all of this is a testament to his poise, and it should me more encouraging to Bills fans than a bunch of fluky wins would have been. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Bills 13
* * *
Cardinals at Buccaneers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Buccaneers by 1
Josh Freeman could have lost his starting job to a paper plate with a smiley face crayoned onto it, but he lost it to Mike Glennon. Glennon is a big, bright kid with a million-dollar arm and no concept whatsoever of how to deal with a pass rush. He may also not be ready to handle a complex NFL game plan, but it remains to be seen whether the Buccaneers have one of those.
Glennon also may not have to deal with a pass rush. The Cardinals lost starting outside linebackers Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander for the year last week, limiting their blitz capability. Meanwhile, safety Rashad Johnson lost the top of his middle finger against the Saints. Johnson is not sure how it happened, but thinks it snapped and got stuck in the turf (ouch). Trainers said that blood was leaking from Johnson's glove like a faucet (yuck). Doctors shaved the bone and covered it with skin (youch). Coach Bruce Arians expects Johnson to play Sunday, calling the injury "a little tip with stiches" (ouch, cold).
Johnson told reporters that he only needs his thumbs to play video games and that the middle finger "probably wouldn't have been used for anything good anyway." Let's hope he was referring to obscene gestures, because otherwise he would mean that OH GOD OH GOD THIS PREVIEW WAS ALREADY TOO DISGUSTING ABORT ABORT ABORT.
Prediction: Buccaneers 22, Cardinals 17
* * *
Bengals at Browns
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 4
Things happening at Browns headquarters as you read this:
Michael Lombardi is popping champagne for bloggers-turned-GMs everywhere. Go, Michael, go: At this rate I will be in the Browns front office by 2023!
Joe Banner is walking around with that look Zero Mostel had in The Producers when he realized that Springtime for Hitler wouldn't tank the way he planned it to.
Norv Turner is looking for ways to take credit for special teams touchdowns.
Josh Aubrey is demanding more touches.
Brian Hoyer is bending Matt Cassel's ear over the phone about just how to parlay "Tom Brady's former trusted backup" and a few wins into a $63-million contract.
Some poor secretary is politely hanging up on Mike Holmgren, who keeps complaining about how the franchise treated him, and Jim Brown, who is demanding more touches.
Jimmy Haslam shredding, shredding, shredding.
The Bengals, coming off a big win and looking ahead to a trip to New England next week, are keeping themselves focused by yelling WATCH FAKE! WATCH FAKE! at each other. It should be enough.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Browns 10
* * *
Bears at Lions
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 2 ½
Because μ asked for it: coefficients of sliding friction, a handy guide for engineers and Lions receivers:
Rubber on Asphalt: Approximately 0.65
Glass on Glass: 0.4
Ice on Ice: 0.02
Cardboard pizza box on car upholstery: 0.55
Cardboard pizza box on cardboard pizza box: 0.0000004. They actually hover about a millimeter apart from one another according to some quantum pepperoni maglev mystery that science has not yet unraveled. That's why any Jersey boy could tell Nate Burleson that the pizzas go in the hatchback or trunk.
As ridiculous Lions stories go, Burleson breaking his arm after crashing his car while saving a sliding pizza is an improvement over past years. Ndamukong Suh would have crashed into the pizzeria. It's best not to think about what Titus Young would have done. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't in this world, and if ordering two pizzas results in a broken arm, you might as well get on a party bus full of strippers. With the pizzas.
Also, the Bears are really good and Jay Cutler likes slamming into defenders.
Prediction: Bears 23, Lions 14
* * *
Giants at Chiefs
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Chiefs by 4 ½
The Giants have decided to switch sports entirely. "From this point on, I don't care what the situation may be, I don't care what the outcome is, I don't care what the hell has to happen," Antrel Rolle told WFAN. "If they want to kick me from around here, from the New York Giants, then that's what's going to have to happen. But I'm going to play Antrel Rolle ball the way I know how to play Antrel Rolle ball."
Here is some exclusive footage of Antrel Rolle Ball:
Looks exciting! The National Antrel Rolle Ball League has already lined up sponsorship and broadcast rights with NBC Sports Network, with franchises in Virginia, Sacramento, Omaha and Las Vegas. Tom Coughlin has not agreed to coach in the NARBL, but Jim Fassel has, and JaMarcus Russell is reportedly interested in playing. Josh Freeman, your future is calling!
The Chiefs will continue to play Andy Reid Ball, which has the same initials and is far less exciting but, you know, victory and all.
Prediction: Chiefs 24, Giants 17
* * *
Colts at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 9 ½
The Jaguars offense has scored three first half points this season. (Their special teams also produced a blocked-punt safety; whatevs). So here's the thing: Until the Jaguars prove they can score a first-half touchdown, there is no point in breaking down their games. Blaine Gabbert is back? Doesn't matter. The Colts are coming off a huge win and are working a dynamic new running back into an ever-evolving offense? Doesn't matter. If you cannot score a touchdown unless the opponent hands you the ball on the two-yard line or Tarvaris Jackson is taking snaps, you don't merit a Game Riff, even if that means dragging an interesting opponent down with you. So Jaguars Game Riffs are suspended until they score a first-half touchdown. They left me no choice.
Prediction: Colts 27, Jaguars 9
* * *
Jets at Titans
4 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Titans by 3 ½
It's time to play Stop That Runaway Narrative!
The Jets are a bad team. They have been bad for years. They have major locker room problems. Butt fumble. Quarterback controversy. I read somewhere that Geno Smith is a weenie. Man, they looked awful in the preseason. They may be the worst team in the NFL. They may be the WORST TEAM IN PROFESSIONAL SPORTS HISTORY. GENO SMITH IS A CRYBABY REX RYAN IS A JERK MARK SANCHEZ IS A DOPE THIS TEAM WILL GO 0=16 FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS THERE IS NO HOPE THEY MIGHT NOT SCORE FOUR TOUCHDOWNS ALL SEASON EVERYTHING ABOUT THE JETS IS A HOPELESS CESPOOL OF FAILURE AND IDIOCY NOW AND FOREVER …
It gets away from itself, doesn't it? The Jets remain a bad team and a franchise with much housekeeping to do, but the runaway narrative bowled over a few basic facts. The Jets defense has always been very good, and their offensive line is solid. Smith is a legitimate prospect. Combine those elements, stir in the Buccaneers and Bills as opponents, and you get two wins.
Toss the Titans into the mix and you may get three. The Titans have two mucky wins thanks to some solid defense, an ultra-conservative offense, some luck and a pair of weak opponents. Sounds familiar! Their two-win start causes no psychological whiplash, because there is no runaway narrative to slow down. No one thought they were comically terrible in August (no one thinks of them at all), and no one thinks they are suddenly great now.
Yes, that's right: There's a danger of the Jets Runaway Narrative rounding a hairpin and coming straight back at us. That Geno Smith is pretty good. How did 31 teams pass on him? My team is stuck with some bum at quarterback because our GM drafted a left tackle or something. He should be fired. They ALL SHOULD BE FIRED THERE MUST BE ACCOUNTABILITY …
Prediction: Jets 17, Titans 12
* * *
Cowboys at Chargers
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Cowboys by 1 ½
This is only the second Romo-Rivers Summit in human history. The first was a 20-17 Chargers win in Dallas, way back when both teams were really good. It seems like Philip Rivers and Tony Romo should meet more often. Rivers is essentially Romo's angry, awkward younger brother, and the two complement each other well. Give Rivers' feisty resolve to Romo, or give Rivers the ability to move more like Romo and less like an arthritic ostrich, and you have a Hall of Famer.
The Chargers and Cowboys have each trafficked in fascinating mediocrity since that 2009 meeting, allowing their former near-excellence to unspool into a stream of .500-or-worse seasons while keeping the same personnel and making the same mistakes. Jerry Jones' sermons, which wrap both press-conference and sport-stalk evisceration of press conference into one tidy package, mirror former Chargers general manager A.J. Smith's angry troll-screeds against his players in much the same way Romo's distracted brilliance mirrors Rivers' rickety rage. The Chargers and Cowboys have each been half a great franchise for four years, and their meeting could yield either a matter-antimatter explosion or a pretty good game.
Both teams are trying to break their futility cycles. The Chargers have a new GM and coach but the same old problems. Watch the Chargers suffer a blocked field goal or become conservative-to-a-fault with a narrow lead, and you would swear Norv Turner just had plastic surgery to make him look like Mike McCoy. The Cowboys are trying to break their cycle by doing the same darn things they always do, but against weaker opponents. It has worked so far this season for the Cowboys, and it should keep working.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Chargers 24
* * *
Redskins at Raiders
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Redskins by 2 ½
Perception is everything. The Redskins go 0-3 behind a rusty quarterback with a hunk of plastic on his leg, and a rift opens in the District of Columbia that nearly swallows the region whole. The Raiders get blown out on Monday night after barely squeezing by the Jaguars. "Say, that Terrelle Pryor looks pretty good, and these guys aren't quite as putrid as we thought they would be. Attaboy, guys!"
Pryor does look pretty good, though a concussion against the Broncos will probably keep him out on Sunday. And the Raiders are doing what rebuilding teams must do: staying somewhat competitive while evaluating and developing talent. There is something to be said for the good old days, when everyone expected a team with a young quarterback to suffer through growing pains for a year or two. Unfortunately, it is too late to say it.
Prediction (without Pryor): Redskins 27, Raiders 20
* * *
Dolphins at Saints
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Saints by 7
Dolphins victories do not add up to the sum of their parts, which is a good thing, because the sum of the Dolphins' parts does not add up to victory. The Dolphins have been outgained in all three of their games, gain 3.2 yards per carry to their opponents' 4.7 yards, have allowed 14 sacks while recording nine, and are losing the yards-per-play and time of possession battles. Not all of the major indicators point against the Dolphins -- opponents complete just 55.2 percent of their passes and have been intercepted five times -- but to see why the Dolphins are 3-0 instead of 1-2 you have to look at smaller indicators.
The Dolphins have converted half their third downs.
Opponents are 5-of-11 converting touchdowns inside the red zone.
The Dolphins have committed just two penalties in the last two games.
Caleb Sturgis is perfect on field goals. Both the Colts and Falcons missed one.
Those little indicators are exactly enough to add up to a pair of close wins against good teams. Take the Falcons game as an example. The Falcons settled for field goals on two red-zone trips, one to the two-yard line. They were penalized seven times, twice on punt plays that had significant field position consequences, while the Dolphins lost just 13 yards to penalties. Matt Bryant missed a field goal, while Sturgis made a 50-yarder before halftime. The Result? A Dolphins victory in a game in which they were outplayed for most of the afternoon.
So are those smaller indicators evidence of discipline and good situational football, or the dreaded four-letter L word that floods a sportswriter's inbox? Consider: A penalty-per-game average is completely unsustainable. Opposing field goals are essentially random. The Dolphins had a great red-zone defense last year, so there is something to this year's success, but 5-of-11 is pretty extreme. Same for the third downs. The numbers are impressive -- the Dolphins are 4-of-5 on third-and-nine, which is unique -- but the law of averages is going to eat into that 50-percent figure.
It is possible to be disciplined, play good situational football AND be lucky. That may be the best explanation of why the Dolphins are 3-0. To determine whether they can go 4-0, we should conclude Game Riffs the way we started, by applying four questions to the Monday Night undefeateds.
Who Have the Dolphins Played? Two 2012 playoff teams.
Who Has Been Healthy: The Falcons were banged up, and the Browns were without their top receivers. The Dolphins have had some health issues, a few of which (tight end) will not resolve themselves this year.
How have the Dolphins Won? See above.
How have the Dolphins Been Covered? Completely ignored, then suddenly declared "for real" by those who studiously ignored them.
Who Have the Saints Played? One 2012 playoff team and two weaklings.
Who Has Been Healthy? The Cardinals kept losing starters as their game went on. The Saints are at roughly full strength
How have the Saints Won? Held on versus Falcons, steamrolled the others.
How has it been covered? Bountygate redemption story with minimal football insight.
The common ground between the Saints and Dolphins is that they are both undefeated, but both inspire skepticism. One of them will convince doubters on Monday night. Until then, doubters must continue to doubt.
Prediction: Saints 26, Dolphins 23