For a long time, the NFL, and all of our sports leagues, have tried to preach the virtue of parity. That every team, each and every season, truly has a chance to win a title if they make the right moves. As fans, we know this is simply not true. There are years when you enter the season hoping not for a playoff appearance, but for a higher draft pick to fix a hole on your team. Or, you hope to make the playoffs as a Wild Card, because it’s been awhile since your team has played in the postseason.
This NFL season feels different. There really don’t seem to be any dominant teams that are clearly a class above everyone else. Part of this is due to injuries to some of the game’s biggest stars (sorry, Packers fans). But the other part is that each team has specific flaws that could cause them to lose any given game, but also certain strengths that could let them win any given game (well, outside the 49ers and Browns).
Now, true parity is impossible. And we don’t want it anyway, because that would mean each team would finish 8-8, and we’d go so deep into tiebreakers that our heads would spin. But this year is more wide-open than most, as after six weeks we’re still not really sure who the true Super Bowl contenders are. If you’re unfamiliar with how we do these picks, here are the tiers.
No way we can lose – locks of the week: As you can guess, these will be the stone-cold locks of the week. The games I’m so confident about that I’d wager my life’s savings on them, if I had a life’s savings to wager.
Feeling pretty… pretty good: Not quite willing to bet the farm on this batch, but as Mr. Larry David would say, ‘I’m feeling pretty… pretty good’ about these games.
Heads or tails: These are your true toss ups: they can go one way or another, and you should pick with caution, even after heeding my expert advice.
All lines courtesy of Sportsline.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Oakland Raiders (+3), Thursday 8:25 p.m.
Level of Confidence: Heads or Tails… Toss up
ATS & Straight up: Chiefs
The Raiders have continued to have the same problems that they did last season, they’re just not getting as lucky as they did last year. Oakland was 8-1 last season in games decided by a touchdown or less. This year, they’re 0-2 so far in those games. They did miss Derek Carr for a game and a half, but the offense isn’t the problem as much as the defense is. The Raiders are 23rd in the league in yards allowed (349.8), 20th in passing yards allowed (232.7), and 21st in rushing yards allowed (117.2).
Granted, the Chiefs haven’t been good at stopping opponents either, playing their signature bend-but-don’t-break style. However, the Chiefs have dominated the Raiders recently, winning the last five straight. With Amari Cooper still not looking right and Oakland’s running game struggling, I’ll take the Chiefs coming off their first loss.
No Way We Can Lose… Locks of the Week
Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Rams (-3.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Rams
If you had told me before the season that I’d be picking the Rams as one of my locks of the week, I’d have told you that you were insane. But here we are. The Rams offense has looked miles better under Sean McVay, and the defense has started to round into form the past two weeks (Leonard Fournette’s 75-yard TD run notwithstanding). They’re still tops in the league in points per game at 29.8, and Todd Gurley has been big on the ground (86.6 YPG) and through the air (leading receiver with 23 catches).
Arizona looked great, with Adrian Peterson finding his old form for a week, but I’m not sure how many of those vintage performances he has left. Sure, if Peterson runs for 150 yards and two scores again, the Cards could win this game. But this season Arizona is 1-5 ATS, and they’ve generally been incapable of stopping opposing offenses, even in the second half last week against Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers (-5.5), Sunday 4:25 p.m
ATS & Straight up: Steelers
The Steelers seemed to find their rhythm last week against the Chiefs on the road, largely because they started handing the ball to Le’Veon Bell more. In the three games this season that Bell has had 20+ carries, the Steelers have outscored their opponents 72-31 in wins over the Vikings, Ravens and Chiefs. In the games where he’s had 20 or fewer, they’ve been outscored 71-47,and Ben Roethlisberger has turned the ball over seven times (6 INT 1 fumble).
The Bengals have one of the league’s better run defenses, allowing just 103.2 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. The key is whether the Steelers give up on the run early, or keep feeding Bell. If they give up early, the Bengals could take this. Still, I’ll stick with the Steelers at home.
Denver Broncos @ Los Angeles Chargers (-1.5), Sunday 4:25 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Chargers
The Broncos barely escaped the Chargers earlier this season at home, needing a blocked field goal late to win. This time around, Los Angeles is entering the game coming off two straight wins and facing a battered Trevor Siemian, who’s dealing with a shoulder sprain. If Siemian can’t go, we’ll see Brock Osweiler at the helm. Here’s the thing. Neither guy is going to have much of a chance if the Broncos offensive line, which has allowed 17 sacks and 30 QB hits, can’t contain the combo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. That duo has combined for 13 sacks this year, they’re going to make it a long day in the backfield for the Broncos QBs.
Feeling Pretty… Pretty Good
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Indianapolis Colts (+3), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Jaguars
The Jaguars are sensational against the pass, ranking third in the league, allowing just 166 yards per game while piling up 23 sacks and recording 10 interceptions. They’ve been one of the league’s worst against the run, but the Colts, with veteran Frank Gore, have been ineffective running the ball this year. The Jags lost a tough game to the Rams last week, but they’ll get back in the win column here.
New Orleans Saints @ Green Bay Packers (+5.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Straight up: Saints
I don’t know why, but this game feels like a trap to me. Last week, the Saints looked set to blow out the Lions before allowing a couple of big plays in the second half, and it turned into a 14-point game. The Packers are starting Brett Hundley, who looked rough in relief of Aaron Rodgers last week, throwing three picks.
Everyone seems to think the Packers are doomed without Rodgers and maybe they are. But the Saints never seem to look like the same team when playing outside, and Hundley will look better with a full week to prepare. Saints win, but the Packers keep it close.
Tennessee Titans @ Cleveland Browns (+5.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Straight up: Titans
The Browns should go back to DeShone Kizer this week. Kevin Hogan was an abject disaster, as Cleveland was embarrassed by Houston. With a still-recovering Marcus Mariota being forced to play more from the pocket, and a bad Titans defense, the Browns can keep it within a touchdown. Granted, I’ve picked the Browns to cover before and they’ve gotten blown out, so who knows with this team?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Buffalo Bills (-3), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Straight up: Bills
The Bills defense has been one of the better units in the league, and Jameis Winston is dealing with a shoulder injury. That, plus the fact that the Bucs defense looked horrible last week against the Cardinals should lead you to believe that the Bills will cover easily. But the Bills offense doesn’t really have any weapons. LeSean McCoy is great, but the Bucs will be keyed in on him. And that leaves Tyrod Taylor trying to beat the Bucs defense with… who? Charles Clay is out after surgery on his knee. Jordan Matthews is doubtful with a thumb injury. Their other tight end, Nick O’Leary, is questionable with a lower-body injury.
The Bills are really banged up offensively, and this could be a low-scoring slugfest.
Washington Redskins @ Philadelphia Eagles (-4.5), Monday 8:30 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Eagles
I’ve picked against the Eagles multiple times this year and have only been right once, when they played the Chiefs. It seems I’ve been underestimating this team and the damage they can do with their front four on defense and LeGarrette Blount/Carson Wentz on offense. You’ve likely heard about the ridiculous third-down numbers for Wentz so far this year and, I think that’s the difference. The Redskins still haven’t quite put it all together yet, needing a late stop to beat the 49ers last week. The Eagles get a win in primetime at home.
Heads or Tails Toss Up
Carolina Panthers @ Chicago Bears (+3), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Panthers
The Panthers suffered a tough loss to the Eagles on Thursday night, and Cam seemed to fall back into his poor play from the first few games of the year. But the Panthers defense was very aggressive in attacking Carson Wentz, and they did hurry him into multiple inaccurate throws. Now, facing a Bears team that has rookie QB Mitch Trubisky under center, I’d expect the Panthers to be just as aggressive.
Chicago won by pounding it on the ground last week to the tune of 53 carries for 231 yards against the Ravens. The problem is that won’t work against a Panthers defense that is fifth in the league against the run, allowing just 83.3 yards per game and four yards per carry. The Panthers get the win by forcing a couple of Trubisky turnovers.
New York Jets @ Miami Dolphins (-3), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Dolphins
The first time around, I was burned by this game, as the Jets stifled Jay Cutler and the Dolphins to win 20-6. The difference this time around will be Jay Ajayi. In the first game, the Dolphins ran Ajayi just 11 times for 16 yards. Last week, against the Falcons, Ajayi was a major part of the comeback win, rushing 26 times for 130 yards. The Jets run defense hasn’t been good this year, and if the Dolphins rely on Ajayi, they should take this game at home.
Baltimore Ravens @ Minnesota Vikings (-5.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Vikings
I hate relying on Case Keenum here. Hate it. Not that Keenum is a terrible QB, he’s fine, but he’s not exactly the guy that I want to rely on winning a game. The reason I’m going with the Vikings here is more their defense, which continues to be a strong unit under Mike Zimmer. They present a tough challenge for Joe Flacco, who hasn’t looked good this season, completing just 63 percent of his passes with a 4-to-8 touchdown to interception ratio. That doesn’t bode well for the Ravens chances, particularly with no way to take pressure off Flacco with the running game.
Dallas Cowboys @ San Francisco 49ers (+6), Sunday 4:05 p.m.
Straight up: Cowboys
The Cowboys got a break with another stay of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension this week, which should help them come off the bye with a win. But the Niners have played five straight games within three points. If 49ers fans are honest with themselves, this season has been the best-case scenario so far. The games are entertaining, but they’re still losing enough to have a high draft pick. Plus, they’re seeing development from some of the young guys on the roster. Niners cover, Cowboys win.
Seattle Seahawks @ New York Giants (+5.5), Sunday 4:25 p.m.
Straight up: Seahawks
I should have seen last week’s win against the Broncos coming. Every year, the Giants have at least two games that you look back on and wonder ‘How did they win that?’. That was last week against the Broncos. There’s some serious chance of that happening here too, particularly if JPP plays like a man possessed the way that he did against Denver on Sunday night. I could see the Giants winning this game, were it not for the fact that I’m not sure Orleans Darkwa can repeat his performance from last week. That said, the Giants, at home, do keep it close.
Atlanta Falcons @ New England Patriots (-3.5), Sunday 8:30 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Falcons
A Super Bowl rematch. This time, maybe the Falcons won’t forget how to run the ball late in the game. The Patriots offense has been humming along behind Tom Brady, but the defense continues to struggle. Were it not for an odd call that kept Austin Seferian-Jenkins from scoring a touchdown last week, New England would have given up 20+ points for the fifth time in six games. This looks like another potentially high-scoring affair, and because the coin I just flipped landed on tails, I’ll go with the Falcons.
Straight up: 48-43