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NFL Week 8 Picks

Mario Mergola previews every NFL Week 8 matchup and breaks down his picks for each game.

Philip Rivers

A reset week. Returning to the mean. A pullback.

Whatever name or phrase is preferred, they all reference the same meaning – Week 7 saw a large amount of teams and trends move back towards their average performances.

An underdog finally beat the spread on Thursday night. ‘Obvious’ picks – Colts, Bears, Browns, Seahawks, Bills, and Cardinals – took a hit to the tune of a 2-4 record against the spread and only 3-3 outright without points. Meanwhile, teams like the Browns, Seahawks, and Chargers pulled back to the middle of the pack while the Jaguars, Rams, and Chiefs tallied much needed wins.

In every way, Week 7 was due to happen. It was just a matter of when.

The bigger issue now arises. What happens next?

Do we expect another ‘reset week? After all, underdogs are still only 2-5 against the spread on Thursday Night Football and an abnormally high amount of ‘easy’ or ‘obvious’ picks tend to keep winning. Or was Week 7 merely a necessary breather where teams can now continue back on their path?

In many ways, the answers to the questions only help provide an overall theme for a given week, but when such a clear pattern just appeared, the best course of action is to proceed neutral. We stay the course on trends we love – underdogs and undervalued picks – but rely on good teams who took a hit last week to bounce back strong – we’re looking at you, Seattle.

The only importance of analyzing recent trends is not necessarily to paint a broad stroke and make picks accordingly – although, sometimes, that is best when playing the odds. It is to recognize its existence and be conscious of how it affects each game.

Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team and an asterisk denotes one of the week’s most confident picks.

*Confidence Picks: 4-3 (Season: 22-19)
All Picks Against Spread: 9-6 (Season: 55-50-1)

San Diego Chargers (+7.5)* at Denver Broncos

It had to happen eventually.

For the first time in what seemed like years, the underdog finally decided to play a complete game on Thursday night and beat the spread. They even had a chance to win the game! But order was eventually restored to the universe as the New York Jets fell, once again.

With the Jets’ two-point loss in New England, the former 5-1 record for favorites against the spread moves the trend ever closer to the more realistic target of a .500 winning percentage. As noted last week, the odds are good that underdogs should hold an edge in the remainder of Thursday Night Football games, however, one week, here or there, should still belong to the favorites.

Part of the dismal performances we have seen from underdogs on Thursday nights is their inability to compete with a short week of preparation. Even though five consecutive weeks featured division teams on Thursday night – and division underdogs typically suffer a far less severe penalty with fewer days to prepare – four of the favorites still covered their spreads. After a while, it seems clear that the underdogs we have seen, regardless of coaching and familiarity within the division, are just plain bad. Of the last four underdogs to play on Thursday Night Football, not one team has a winning record.

That changes this week, as the 5-2 Chargers are currently getting a touchdown worth of points in Denver.

The Broncos, once again, put on a clinic Sunday night when they destroyed the 49ers – how many times have we heard something like that about a Peyton Manning-led team before? Denver dominated in all aspects of the game and improved their rankings across the board. With six games played, the Broncos are now the top scoring offense and sixth-best defense in points allowed.

At least San Diego is not wildly over-matched on paper, ranking ninth in points scored while touting a top-5 defense in both points and yards allowed. If only they didn’t drop a home game to the formerly 2-3 Chiefs. Or, maybe it’s best they did.

Coupled with Denver’s dominating win on national television – including a record-breaking performance by quarterback Peyton Manning – San Diego’s Week 7 loss, to a team whose head coach is historically excellent after a bye week, the distance between the Broncos and Chargers appears to be much larger than it probably is. While Denver currently only has one loss – in Seattle in overtime – San Diego’s two losses have been by a combined four points. The Chargers are no pushovers.

Denver has now covered in three straight games – all as favorites and all by a large margin – but should not continue to pummel teams without resistance. In the same way that San Diego needed to lose a game to reset their trends, so does Denver now that they have over-extended so quickly.

The last time these two teams met in the regular season, the Chargers pulled off the upset in Denver on Thursday Night Football. It happens again. The Chargers rebound while the Broncos take a step back, and San Diego wins by a field goal, beating the spread and moving back to the top of the AFC West.

Detroit Lions (-3.5) at Atlanta Falcons

It just keeps getting worse for the Falcons. While the Lions were busy pulling off one of the most impressive comeback wins of the season, Atlanta was busy trying to escape Baltimore with their pride intact. They couldn’t.

The Falcons have been absolutely dreadful this year – the league’s third-worst defense and now riding a four-game losing streak – and their bye week can’t come soon enough. Unfortunately, they take on a Lions team whose top-ranked defense in yards allowed has only given up more than 20 points twice, and never more than 24.

There appears to be no conceivable way that Atlanta’s putrid defense could keep the team in the game long enough for Matt Ryan and the Falcons to outscore Detroit, but the Lions offense has played far worse than they should on paper. Of course, this could largely be contributed to the absence of wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who has missed two games with injury but, at the time of this writing, is making the trip with the team.

It should be noted, ‘the trip’ is not to Atlanta, where the Falcons typically play well. Instead, the two teams are traveling overseas to London. The Falcons can’t even get their home-field advantage when they need it most.

With or without Megatron, the Lions are simply too powerful for a porous Atlanta defense and the Falcons have shown little to suggest they can score against the Detroit defense. With the game starting at 9:30 am Eastern, the Lions will dispose of the Falcons by the time brunch hits. Detroit wins by two touchdowns and covers.

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (-1.5)

When these two teams met on Opening Day, we approached the game with as much trepidation as we will this time around. Quickly, the Bengals and Ravens have reversed roles since their Week 1 matchup, and Cincinnati appears to be sputtering out of control while Baltimore is sealing off victories by halftime.

There may exist no stronger potion for returning to one’s average performance than playing a division game.

In the previous 13 games between these two teams under their current head coaches, the Ravens hold the slight edge with an overall record of 7-6. However, John Harbaugh’s Ravens are only 2-5 in Cincinnati over this stretch.

Quickly falling behind in the AFC North race, the Bengals must right their ship quickly. With one win over the Ravens already in the book, Cincinnati will look to pull off the rare rivalry sweep. In all likelihood, the Bengals will be without wide receiver A.J. Green for the third straight week. His absence has clearly hurt the Bengals – one loss and one tie in these two games – but at one point, teams run out of excuses and take responsibility for their actions.

Cincinnati stops its skid while breaking Baltimore’s recent run of dominance. The Bengals win by a field goal and cover.

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans (+2)

Even though the Titans are going nowhere this year, how different would this game look had they beaten the Redskins on the road? Moreover, what would the spread be if the Texans hadn’t been dismantled at the end of the first half in their Monday night loss in Pittsburgh?

As much as we joke about hating the Titans in this column – maybe there’s a little more validity to it after Tennessee beat the spread last week – the truth is, the Titans are pesky, and refuse to be defeated easily. Their last three games have all been decided by less than a field goal, and this stretch bares an eerie resemblance to the Cleveland Browns of a few weeks ago. The Browns finally broke out to the tune of a 21-point victory over their division rival from Pittsburgh.

The Titans have all the makings of a similar ‘pop,’ where a perceived ‘better’ division team gets stunned on the road.

Let’s also not forget that, while Pittsburgh stole the game from the Texans at the end of the first half on Monday night, Houston was equally responsible for bonehead plays that led to the collapse. Those types of problems don’t solve themselves overnight.

Tennessee wins by six and beats the spread.

St. Louis Rams at Kansas City Chiefs (-6.5)

Had the Rams not pulled off the upset of the defending Super Bowl Champion Seahawks on Sunday, Kansas City would have won the award for Week 7’s ‘Most Impressive Victory’ when they beat the Chargers in San Diego. The win, while surprising, is not devoid of asterisks.

St. Louis needed every trick in head coach Jeff Fisher‘s book in order to complete the upset – a wild ‘Fake Punt Return’ followed by an actual fake punt – and it was barely enough to give the Rams the improbable edge over Seattle. We might have to chalk this one up to ‘doing everything right at the exact right time,’ as it remains painfully clear that the 2-4 Rams are still one of the league’s worst teams.

While the Rams are a somewhat struggling team this year, the Chiefs have quickly entered the ever-growing list of ‘Unknown Teams.’ Kansas City has now lost to Tennessee, but beat the Patriots and Chargers. With three wins in their last four games, has Kansas City turned a corner or merely played well at the right time?

Diving deeper into the numbers, the sixteen-point average margin of victory with which they have won their three games tend to suggest that the Chiefs are playing at a level much higher than their pedestrian 3-3 record. In addition, the Rams appear to have far-outstretched themselves – again, utilizing trick plays and deception to outlast a team by only two points – and should return back to form on Sunday.

The Chiefs need to win to try to get back into the AFC West race, and do so by ten, covering the large spread.

Chicago Bears (+6.5)* at New England Patriots

Discontent in the locker room? High expectations failing to be met? Losers of three of their last four? Playing a team on a three-game winning streak? On the road?

Yes. All yes.

While these bullet points are not necessarily the ingredients for a surefire victory, they are all factors that typically push the spread larger than it should be. It’s very easy to write off a team that is currently struggling and seems to have hit rock bottom, but that is the very reason to avoid doing so.

In addition to what will surely be overblown reports of the turmoil inside the Bears’ locker room, Chicago has the ability to battle the Patriots on the ground and in the air, something New England hasn’t faced all season. No opponents of the Patriots are currently ranked in the top-10 in both passing yards and rushing yards. In fact, the highest ranking for an overall offense among New England opponents is the Bengals at 16.

Chicago, indeed, falls outside these parameters, as well, but the Bears have faced a bevy of solid defenses – four of their seven opponents are ranked 11th or higher in fewest yards allowed. In addition, the Bears’ mediocre offense – like the current state of the team – appears to have nowhere to go but up. Chicago features one of the league’s best running backs in Matt Forte – third in the league in yards from scrimmage – yet the offense has yet to perform at its peak. Conversely, New England sits in the bottom-third of rushing defenses, and has struggled at times to stop the run. Their two losses – Kansas City and Miami – rank third and fourth, respectively, in the league in rushing yards.

New England showed signs of weakness against the Jets, allowing six scoring drives but limiting four of them to field goals, and came within a blocked kick of losing the game altogether. Much like San Diego narrowly escaping the Raiders to follow-up with a home loss, the Patriots are about to get caught out of position by a Chicago team desperate for a bounce-back performance.

The Bears win by a field goal, beating the spread, and temporarily holding off the falling skies of Chicago.

Buffalo Bills at New York Jets (-2.5)*

To see the Jets favored against anyone is disconcerting. Their six losses are tied for the most in the league, and their current six-game losing streak is twice as long Rex Ryan has endured in his first five seasons as a head coach.

As we tend to write often, the National Football League is not known for anything – trends or records – to be unequivocally one-sided. The Jets will win another few games, at least, this season. The first of which should be Sunday against the Bills.

Despite their winning record, the 4-3 Bills have looked largely underwhelming, relying on late rallies to beat the Lions and Vikings. In their three losses, the Bills have been outscored by an average of 11 points, and they have yet to score 30 points in a game all year.

The Jets barely do anything well, and to put faith in them that they could parry another Bills late-game surge is risky. But after so many consecutive games of being beaten down, New York is due to break through in a big way. Let’s also not forget that Kyle Orton is leading a Bills offense that will now feature a third-string running back as the team’s starter.

The Jets win by ten and cover.

Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3)

In this week’s edition of ‘Who Really Cares?’ the terrible Vikings take on the even-worse Buccaneers. Fresh off giving up a last-second touchdown in Buffalo for a loss, the Vikings travel to Tampa Bay to face the well-rested Buccaneers, coming off a bye week.

Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith has performed quite well with an extra week of preparation, touting a 6-3 record over his nine year career with the Bears. There is one slight difference between Smith’s squad from Chicago and the one he now currently leads in Tampa Bay: the Bears were good; the Buccaneers are not.

As bad as the Buccaneers are, however, they have a few key points in their favor. The ‘bye week’ success of Lovie Smith is actually valid – Andy Reid was fantastic after a bye in Philadelphia and remained a winner in Kansas City this year – and Tampa Bay is not playing a powerhouse from Minnesota on Sunday. But perhaps their most important factor is the recent history that the Buccaneers actually do ‘bounce back’ from big losses.

In three of their five losses, Tampa Bay has been outscored by a relatively small average margin of 4.7 points. After their biggest defeat – a 42-point thrashing in Atlanta – Tampa Bay responded by beating the Steelers on the road. When Tampa Bay last played football, they were getting blown out by 31 points at the hands of the Ravens.

The Buccaneers will recover from their loss to Baltimore with a touchdown victory at home against the Vikings, beating the spread and adding intrigue to the scintillating race for the first overall pick in next year’s draft.

Seattle Seahawks (-4.5) at Carolina Panthers

Admittedly, taking Seattle in this game might be the equivalent of walking into a trap, but it appears that there has finally reached the point of hesitation when assessing the Seahawks. This allows for a lower spread, while not becoming so ‘obvious’ that we should be overly concerned.

In Russell Wilson‘s short career, the Seahawks quarterback has never lost three consecutive games, and the only time that his team lost back-to-back games, they followed it up with a ten-point victory.

Carolina has played a crazy season already, filled with three double-digit losses, wins over the Lions and Bears, and a tie. Trying to find a trend within the Panthers schedule is as useless as trying to give the team an identity altogether. They are, simply, wild.

Unfortunately, that does not bode well for an average offense – Carolina is ranked 20th in yards – facing a hungry, embarrassed top-10 defense – Seattle is ranked eighth in yards allowed.

The Seahawks generally face the stigma of being a better ‘home team’ than ‘road team,’ but that perception is more the result of dominance in Seattle than any struggles on the road. The Seahawks are 7-4 in road games since the start of last season.

Seattle goes into Carolina and beats the Panthers by two touchdowns, covering the spread and sending a statement to the league that their quest for a title defense is not yet finished.

Miami Dolphins at Jacksonville Jaguars (+6)*

Two of our favorite teams to pick on a consistent basis square off this week after upset victories in Week 7. Jacksonville finally put a ‘1’ in the win column after defeating the Browns at home and now face the Dolphins, who might actually bring more fans to the game than the Jaguars, themselves.

Winners of two of their last three games and outperforming expectations in each of them – 3-0 against the spread – the Dolphins have finally grabbed people’s attention. Too late.

While Miami has been wildly inconsistent throughout their journey to a 3-3 record, they were often the beneficiaries of mismatched spreads. As such, the Dolphins have gone 4-2 against the spread, but only 1-2 as a favorite. It seems like every time people jump aboard the Miami bandwagon, the team disappoints.

In their first five games of the season, the spread appeared to never be big enough for Jacksonville. The Jaguars started off 0-5 against the spread, then turned it around and have now beaten the spread in both of their past two games. Jacksonville is playing a better brand of football than it had showed early in 2014 – the Jaguars are allowing a mere 13 points per game over their past three games as compared to an average of 38 points over their first four – and it is not impossible to think that the offense found a solid groove against Cleveland that can translate to success in the future.

The hype around Miami appears to be growing too big too quickly, and Jacksonville looks like the perfect place for the Dolphins to coast to an ‘easy win.’ It won’t happen quite like that. Miami wins by a field goal, but Jacksonville beats the spread.

Philadelphia Eagles (+2.5)* at Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals continue their campaign to become the first team in history to play a ‘neutral site’ Super Bowl in their home stadium as they now sit atop the NFC West with a 5-1 record. Regardless of the quarterback, the Cardinals appear to have one of the best constructed teams, capable of winning games in a myriad of ways.

In fact, Arizona outperforms their expected output both offensively and defensively, scoring points at a success rate much higher than the yards they gain, while allowing far fewer points than the ratio of yards allowed. Part of this success likely stems from the team’s turnover margin, ranked third-best in fewest giveaways and fifth-best in takeaways. Conveniently, Arizona will be hosting the league’s most turnover-happy team from Philadelphia, averaging over 4.5 giveaways per game.

Where Philadelphia thrives, however, is in its unique, fast-paced gameplan and conditioning program that has been well-discussed and seems to gain more popularity every week. Analysts and coaches frequently report on the effect this program has not only on the Eagles, but on their opponents. The common argument is that Eagles head coach Chip Kelly’s strategy is so efficient that opposing players should run out of gas before the Eagles do.

Maybe this is all conjecture and hearsay, but the fact remains that Philadelphia is now 15-7 in the regular season under Chip Kelly and won their lone game that followed a bye week last season – ironically enough, it was against the Cardinals. Taking one extra step, Kelly’s Eagles have also won both Opening Day games under his leadership, making them 3-0 when they have had at least two weeks to recover and prepare.

Philadelphia goes into Arizona and leaves with a touchdown victory, beating the spread.

Oakland Raiders (+7) at Cleveland Browns

How quickly the tune changes.

As soon as the Browns had knocked off – check that, crushed and embarrassed – the Steelers, people boarded the Cleveland bandwagon so fast that talks of a 6-2 start to the season was not only possible, it was pretty much a guarantee. Perhaps, this was a bit premature.

If the Browns were a stock, they would be the prototypical ‘Flash Crash,’ collecting money hand over fist only to crumble to the ground, leaving investors devoid of both cash and pride. Their loss in Jacksonville not only stopped all momentum in its tracks, but quickly dropped the Browns into last place in the AFC North.

Still, the mirage of success that once bathed FirstEnergy Stadium remains intact. Despite losing by 18 points – their biggest defeat all year – and without scoring a touchdown against the Jaguars, the Browns are favored in this game by a touchdown.

The Raiders and Jaguars share a striking amount of similarities, right down to the fact that, despite being two of the league’s worst teams, the quarterback position is not a glaring weakness. Neither team scores – Oakland and Jacksonville are 31st and 32nd, respectively, in points per game – and the two franchises can be found at the bottom of nearly every offensive category. The only strength – if we could use a word so loosely – is that Jacksonville is ‘not the absolute worst team’ against the run while Oakland can ‘somehow, sort of’ stop the pass. Relatively speaking.

The Raiders will win a game this year, and a trip to Cleveland seems a lot more favorable than Seattle or hosting the Broncos in the coming weeks. The Raiders are dead last in the league in rushing offense, but this is also the Browns’ biggest weakness. If Oakland watches some tape from the Jaguars’ victory and could get the ground game working, the Raiders will be on their way to their first win.

Oakland wins by a field goal and beats the spread.

Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers (+3)*

It appears no one was fooled by the events that led to Pittsburgh’s Monday Night Football victory over the Texans. Had it not been for the most insane, wild few minutes of football this season, the Steelers may still be trailing in the game. This all came one day after the Colts shut out the Bengals en route to their fifth straight win.

This is a trap.

The Colts are better than the Steelers and, if football enacted a seven-game series, Indianapolis would probably win in five games, six at the most. But this is not an assessment of a long stretch of football. It is the recognition that Indianapolis has far over-reached and needs to return back to earth.

The Indianapolis Colts are currently a top-4 team in each of the four major categories – points and yards gained and points and yards allowed. Pittsburgh is mediocre across the board and looked tired and over-matched at times against the Texans. How on earth could this Steelers team compete with the Colts?

Three points. While Miami is two field goals better than the Jaguars – according to the spreads – the old, slow Steelers are only a field goal worse than the young, dynamic, electric Colts? Not a chance.

This game – and its spread – is set up for an upset. Keep in mind that, although Indianapolis does nearly everything right, they remain in the bottom-third for protecting the football. Turnovers equalize everything.

Pittsburgh wins a tight game at home by a field goal and beats the spread.

Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints (-1)*

Imagine the following conditions for a Sunday Night Football game: a team that typically plays well at home, just suffered an embarrassing loss, with a historically great, Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, opens the week as the favorite but is largely heralded as the ‘easy lock’ to lose the game.

This was the exact scenario for the New England Patriots in Week 5. They won by 26 points.

This is the exact scenario for the New Orleans Saints.

The Saints dropped one of the most heart-wrenching games possible last week while the Packers had beaten the Panthers by halftime. The two teams are clearly headed in opposite directions, and both should continue on their current path after Sunday night, but that should not skew the thinking for the primetime matchup. In fact, it should enhance it.

The Saints have won an incredible eleven straight primetime games at home. What’s more impressive is that, of these eleven games, six came immediately after a loss.

New Orleans beats the Packers by six and covers.

Washington Redskins (+10) at Dallas Cowboys

So much for Kirk Cousins being the answer in Washington.

After another dismal performance by Cousins, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden pulled the quarterback and turned to Colt McCoy. In what will surely end up being a meaningless game on the schedule, McCoy’s Redskins actually squeaked out a win against the Titans.

There are, and should be, no conclusions to draw from this other than the realization that the Kirk Cousins experiment is officially over. So over, in fact, that Robert Griffin III may actually play on Monday night. At least, that is the rumor at the time of this writing.

We won’t hold our breath. Whether or not Griffin plays does not actually impact the large spread and the difference in talent between the two teams. The Cowboys are much better, on a hot streak, and are playing at home. Normally, teams take a hit when they run a winning streak as long as the Cowboys have, but Washington will not be the one to snap it. They will, however, play within single digits of the Cowboys.

Ten points is almost always too big to give to a division opponent, especially on a nationally televised game. The Cowboys win by a touchdown but the Redskins beat the spread.

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