By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You know, we here in the New England region have a tendency to get hyper-focused on the goings-on of the local football team, occasionally losing sight of some of the other flaws and missteps that seem to plague just about every organization that decides to suit up a football team every Sunday.
That is to say, without a doubt, the 2018 New England Patriots don’t make a lick of sense. They’re tough to properly and fully gauge. They may well end up proving to be very good. They may well end up proving to be not quite good enough. They’re 4-0 against teams currently in the playoff picture; they’re 5-4 against everyone else.
The Patriots are weird and they don’t make a ton of sense.
But, at the same time, what team this year isn’t weird?
It wasn’t long ago that we knew with great certainty that the NFL had three exceptional teams that were head-and-shoulders better than everybody else: the Kansas City Chiefs, the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. But, as the saying goes, life comes at you fast.
The Saints were held to 10 points and under 200 yards against the Cowboys. For the first time in months, they were mortal. They then looked decidedly average for 45 minutes against an inferior opponent in Tampa.
The Chiefs, after taking a memorable loss to the Rams, came off their bye week and went down to the wire with the … Raiders. The 2-9 Oakland Raiders took the presumed top team in the AFC deep into the fourth quarter before the Chiefs pulled away in the final minutes. The Chiefs, who of course lost arguably their biggest offensive contributor in Kareem Hunt, then were pushed to overtime at home against the Ravens. Wins clearly won’t be coming easy for the Chiefs, especially this week when the Chargers make a visit while looking to seize first place in the AFC West.
Most recently, we witnessed the high-flying Los Angeles Rams get stuck in the mud in Chicago, held to a meager six points and 214 offensive yards. Jared Goff threw four picks and zero touchdowns, and he took three sacks. Todd Gurley had 28 rushing yards. The defense was gashed by Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen (combined 170 yards on just 28 carries). And for a team that is having somewhat of a magical season, we’re suddenly reminded of last year’s postseason dud at home against Atlanta.
And those are the best teams. Everyone else? It’s a week-to-week life in the NFL. The Steelers and the Panthers were not long ago considered legitimate contenders in their respective conferences; they’re now in freefall, in danger of missing the postseason entirely. The Texans racked up nine straight wins against thoroughly unimpressive competition, and then lost at home Sunday to the Colts. The Bears lost to the Giants, whom we all thought were tanking at the time.
Two teams are smoking hot right now — the Seahawks and the Cowboys — but they’re also both 8-5, each with some grisly blemishes on their record.
The Chargers are rolling right along, arguably as the best team in the AFC. We’ll learn a lot about them this week, and we’re all well aware that they’re a franchise (and they have a quarterback) with very little postseason success and a real lack of home-field advantage if they’re fortunate enough to earn it.
Taking the big picture … it’s hard to feel great about any one team when it comes to winning this year’s Super Bowl. It’s certainly not the first time that’s happened, but with just three weeks remaining in the season, so much clearly still remains up for grabs. Your guess as to what may happen is as good as anyone else’s.
Speaking of guesses, it’s picks time.
(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)
Los Angeles Chargers (+3.5) over KANSAS CITY
Here it is. Time for the Chargers to show up. Biggest game of the year. Biggest game since their move to L.A. Win the game, put yourself in the driver’s seat to win the division. Lose, and enjoy a three-game road trip if you want to reach the Super Bowl.
The stakes are massive.
The Chiefs appear to be running low on steam, and with a hampered Tyreek Hill, a doubtful Spencer Ware and an absent Sammy Watkins, it’s going to be awfully difficult to cover up the loss of Kareem Hunt — especially against a top-10 defense.
Houston (-6) over NEW YORK JETS
Saturday football! The best. Your family will just love the fact that you’re watching NFL football on a Saturday. They’ll love it. They’ll say, “Excuse me, why are you watching the NEW YORK FOOTBALL JETS on this day of leisure?!” And you will say, “Sorry, what? I was distracted. I’m watching the Jets game.”
Your family will immediately leave you forever.
Love Saturday football.
DENVER (-3) over Cleveland
“Excuse me, why are you watching the CLEVELAND FOOTBALL BROWNS on this day of leisure?!”
JACKSONVILLE (-7) over Washington
All that needs to be said about the Washington Redskins:
Redskins coach Jay Gruden said they will start Josh Johnson, who went from playing in a pickup basketball charity tournament a week ago to being in charge of a team whose playoff hopes remain faintly alive. Johnson relieved Mark Sanchez late in the third quarter of Washington’s 40-16 loss to the New York Giants.
(Jags are back, baby!)
INDIANAPOLIS (-3) over Dallas
Tough one! But Dallas has not quite been *DALLAS* on the road this year. Let’s see if ol’ lil’ Andy can’t get his team into the playoffs, huh? Wouldn’t that be nice?
BALTIMORE (-8) over Tampa Bay
I do harbor some concerns about a rookie quarterback (who has roughly twice as many rushing attempts as completions) taking the reins on a team that’s on the edge of the playoff picture. I do.
But I also feel like the dead-ass Bucs might go into chilly, rainy Baltimore with absolutely no inspiration.
ATLANTA (-9) over Arizona
There are a lot of games this weekend with huge playoff implications. This is not one of them. This game should not be televised. If more than one-thousand humans attend this game, I will be stunned.
This game is terrible and its mere existence offends me.
I will not* watch this game.
*I might watch some of it.
BUFFALO (-2.5) over Detroit
We finally get to see if all of that outdoor practice pays off for Matty P. and the Detroit Lions. I actually never understood what the hubbub was about with that. It’s football. Sometimes you have to play it outside. Those players are paid to play football, and they’ll all survive having to be outside for two hours once or twice.
Unfortunately for the Lions, they’re kind of bad in all weather and in all buildings.
Cardinals-Falcons, Bills-Lions. Week 15 is not for the faint of heart. Make sure you load up on antacids before hitting the hay on Saturday night. Sunday’s going to be rough seas for all.
CINCINNATI (-2.5) over Oakland
Oh my dear this 1 p.m. slate only gets worse. Can’t somebody — anybody — make it stop? PLEASE.
Congratulations in advance to the Bengals for earning their first win of the Hue Jackson era. Dive-bombing from 5-3 to 5-8 has been an exceptionally polite way for the Bengals organization to welcome him aboard.
Also, my favorite NFL story of the week was Ben Roethlisberger saying that the Oakland Raiders’ X-ray machine was too old to give readable results to doctors in a swift amount of time. I don’t believe him, but also, I choose to totally believe him. Because that’s tremendous. I picture some 16,000-pound machine from 1973 that Al Davis paid a pretty penny for and thus never wanted to pay to have replaced. Oh, the Raiders, they are a good time.
Green Bay (+6) over CHICAGO
We all recognize that the Packers aren’t all that good in 2018. Understood. But let’s not get too carried away here.
Sure, they’re 5-7-1 overall, and they’re 0-6 (oh-and-six!!!) on the road this year. Not good. Got it.
But it’s not as if they’ve been an abject disaster in some of these losses. In fact, in three of their last five losses, they’ve lost by three points or fewer. They did beat the Bears in Week 1, but that was admittedly one-hundred years ago. I do like the Bears to win this game, but with Aaron Rodgers involved in a game against the Bears, it would just look and feel totally wrong for Chicago to win this one by a large margin. That would simply be disrespectful to the NFC North gods, and the Bears have more respect for higher football powers than to mess with that.
Plus, the Packers are undefeated since firing Mike McCarthy. You can’t discount that, folks.
MINNESOTA (-7) over Miami
Why’s the line gotta be seven? Why? That’s rude. Inconsiderate.
Fact is, you should have serious, serious doubts about either team in this game. The Dolphins are a brutal road team. They’re 1-5 outside of the comforts of home, and that lone win came at the Jets, which barely even counts.
The Vikings meanwhile are sort of just a brutal football team, home or away. They’ve been non-competitive for the past two weeks. Their quarterback is a no-show against decent teams. They’re still in playoff positions but their season is on the brink. Meanwhile the Dolphins are thirsting for some postseason action after beating the Patriots on a miracle a week ago.
WHAT TO DO WHAT TO DO!
I’ll roll with the Vikings now that they might actually run the football. Seems like it might work out for them, especially against a very bad run defense.
Tennessee (+2.5) over NEW YORK GIANTS
What are the Giants doing? Why on God’s green earth would you win four out of five games when you have a chance for a top pick in the draft? New York Giants, y’all are crazy.
(I know players want to win and need to win, and coaches have that pesky fear of getting fired at all times. But organizationally? Climbing from 1-7 to 5-8 has got to be a nightmare for some of the franchise planners.)
Seattle (-4.5) over SAN FRANCISCO
Everything’s going right for the Seattle Seahawks. The sun always shines on Peter Carroll. I can’t explain it. But I don’t fight it.
New England (-2) over PITTSBURGH
Goodness, do I love this line. My fear was that the line would be something like seven or eight points, because the Steelers are in disarray and the Patriots generally own the Steelers. But two points? TWO POINTS? Come on. Is Plax playing defense?
Tom Brady, regular-season career, vs. Pittsburgh:
8-2 record, 260-for-377 (69.0%), 312 yards/game, 8.3 yards/attempt, 25 TDs, 4 INTs, 111.8 passer rating
Tom Brady vs. Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers (including playoffs):
7-1 record, 207-for-292 (70.1%), 321 yards/game, 8.8 yards/attempt, 23 TDs, 1 INT, 122.67 passer rating
Rob Gronkowski, regular-season career vs. Steelers:
6 games, 6.5 receptions/game, 111 yards/game, 8 TDs
Two points?! Against bruised-rib Ben? Ol’ goal-line-pick-to-the-defensive-tackle-slingin’ Benny Boy? Thank you very much.
LOS ANGELES RAMS (-9) over Philadelphia
A part of me wants to go ALL IN on Nicky Foles regaining that crazy 2017 swag and leading the Eagles to the playoffs or something crazy like that. A big part of me.
But, let’s be real. Nick Foles is Nick Foles. That’s never happening again.
CAROLINA (+6.5) over New Orleans
The level of excitement I had for the Patriots-Steelers line is equal to the level of dread I have about this line.
The Panthers, as previously mentioned, are in complete freefall, losers of five straight, out of the playoff picture and in danger of falling further out. There is not a single reason to believe in them.
They have, though, kept things relatively close during their skid, losing by an average of 4.25 points over the past four weeks. (We’re going to let that 52-21 loss to Pittsburgh slide for the time being.)
And with the Saints looking less-than-superhuman in recent weeks, this one feels like one of those late-night, don’t-fall-asleep-yet backdoor covers that makes folks around the country shout with either complete glee or agony. The Panthers may not be good for much, but I hope they’re good for that.
Last week: 8-8 (after going 6-2 during the 1 p.m. slate you have GOT to be kidding me, people!)