The first week of Purple Nightmare picks went about as well as one could have hoped. We went 13-1 with the lone incorrect outcome from Monday night's Saints-Raiders game, but I shouldn't pat myself on the back too enthusiastically as most of last week's games were not terribly competitive matchups. This week, however, appears to be a far greater challenge. As I look over the schedule for the week, nine games jump out at me as fairly evenly matched, and thus, difficult to predict. Mind you, we're still in the first quarter of the season, so we have such a limited sample of statistics from which to derive conclusions. We shall, nevertheless, press on and see which teams emerge as true contenders by the end of the week.
No game will be as highly anticipated as the Chiefs-Ravens game on Monday night. Both teams are not only unbeaten but also led by sensational young quarterbacks that appear on track to be the future premier rival AFC gunslingers for years to come much the way Tom Brady and Peyton Manning held that position for roughly a decade and a half. Oddly enough, Lamar and Patrick aren't so different from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady even if their play styles contrast heavily. Tom Brady led his team to a Super Bowl and won Super Bowl MVP in his first season as a starter. Patrick Mahomes led his team to Super Bowl victory in his second season as a starter, and he too took home MVP honors after the game. Peyton Manning won league MVP twice early in his career before finally reaching and winning a Super Bowl against the Bears in early 2007. Lamar won league MVP in his first full season as a starter, but like Peyton Manning, has struggled in the post season early in his career thus far. That doesn't mean he can't break that trend this season, but one must admit that there are curious similarities between the two pairs of stars.
Like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes is guided by a head coach whose system tends to help mold and elevate young quarterbacks. Lamar's head coach is no such guru, but he certainly hired one in Greg Roman. Roman has a knack for designing a playbook around the talents of athletic quarterbacks. He coordinated Colin Kaepernick to a Super Bowl that the 49ers came yards away from winning, and he guided Tyrod Taylor to a season that earned Pro Bowl honors in 2015 when Roman was offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. I must admit that after last post-season's first round playoff exit, I wondered if Lamar simply couldn't win a game when he had to come from behind. When playing with a deficit, most teams are forced to largely abandon the run and rely upon the passing game to score quickly while conserving the clock. It didn't appear as though Lamar was at the stage in his development last season that he could put the team on his back and come back against a Titans team that found success chewing up the clock with a strong rushing attack from Derrick Henry. It easily also could have had to do with drops and poor performance from his receiving targets, but for whatever the reason, the Ravens just couldn't seem to put the ball in the endzone often enough last post-season.
Week 1 of the 2020 season certainly showed that Lamar Jackson is capable of taking over a game with his arm when a team has committed to stopping the Ravens rushing attack. It must be noted that the Browns secondary was missing notable starters, and the Ravens likely knew they were going to spend most of the afternoon attacking Cleveland's apparent weakness. As luck would have it, the Chiefs suffered injuries to defensive pieces as of late, and without defensive end Alex Okafor, starting defensive tackle Khalen Saunders, and starting cornerback Charvarius Ward, the Chiefs were weakened to the point where they were taken to overtime by an unquestionably inferior Chargers team. It seems reasonable to conclude that if the Chargers can take the Chiefs into overtime, the Ravens should be able to do significantly better. The Ravens' biggest worry will be slowing down the Chiefs explosive offense. Patrick Mahomes can make every conceivable throw, and he has no shortage of impossibly fasts target to which to distribute the football. The Ravens have two top-level cornerbacks, but they'll need more than that to slow down a Chiefs offense that also boasts an all-world tight end. The Ravens can't expect to keep the Chiefs out of the end zone most of the day the way they did with the Texans and Browns, but they can aim to outscore Mahomes and company if they can simply force a handful of key stops with a turnover or two added into the mix.
The Chiefs succeeded in taking away the Ravens rushing attack last season, and Lamar struggled to mount drives until there wasn't quite enough time to truly overcome the deficit. Greg Roman will always try to establish the run, but if the Chiefs commit to stopping it early this time around, Roman knows he can trust Lamar to attack the Chiefs' uneven secondary. The strategy for this week may very well be to use the pass to open up the run rather than the other way around. The beautiful thing is that Lamar finally appears ready and more than capable of attacking a defense no matter where it appears weakest.
The Chiefs are not nearly the only team dealing with key injuries. Major and season-ending injuries swept across the league last Sunday, and they must be taken into account as we examine each upcoming contest. For the Ravens, last Sunday saw the loss of starting nickel corner, Tavon Young, but many other teams lost even more pivotal players. The Giants lost Saquon Barkley while the 49ers lost Nick Bosa to an ACL tear and could be without Jimmy Garoppolo for the foreseeable future due to a high ankle sprain. The Broncos were hit equally hard with the loss of Von Miller and the 3-5 week loss of starting quarterback Drew Lock. One has to wonder if the shortened, unconventional off-season contributed to the calamitous rash of early injuries, but I suppose there is no way to draw definitive conclusions.
I write this as I watch the Dolphins unexpectedly suffocate the Jaguars. I had planned to pick the Jaguars to win, so we'll count this one as a loss in the predictions column. With that said, let's get to the picks!
WEEK 3 PREDICTIONS
BEARS AT FALCONS- The Bears had a single player listed on their injury report this week. The problem is that he is one of the top 5 defensive players in the NFL. Khalil Mack was limited in practice for the second straight day, but I would be shocked if he didn't play on Sunday. The Bears are 2-0, but I was not exactly blown away by either of their wins. Most recently the Bears squeaked by a Giants team that lost Saquon Barkley. The Falcons, on the other hand, lost an impossibly frustrating game to the Cowboys last week with a score that I've never seen in a professional football game before: 40-39. The Falcons seem content to just not play defense, but do not believe the bears will be able to keep up with the Falcons from an offensive standpoint. Old Matty Ice is finally going to win won. FALCONS 31-27
RAMS AT BILLS- The Rams showed they can go on the road and annihilate another NFC team last week with a 37-19 win over the Eagles in Philly. The Bills, meanwhile, held their own in wins over two of their 3 divisional opponents, but neither one of those was the Patriots. One thing is for sure, the Bills defense does not appear to be nearly as strong as the thunderous unit from last season against which even Lamar Jackson and company struggled to consistently move the football. Despite their undefeated record thus far, I'm going to need to see more from the Bills before I can pick them to beat another undefeated team like the Rams. RAMS 27-20
WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM AT BROWNS- The Browns have enough playmakers to shred a secondary as thin as Washington's. The team formerly known as the Redskins mustered a thunderous pass rush in Week 1 to come from behind and beat the Eagles, but their secondary was still repeatedly exposed. The Skins do not have defensive backs capable of shutting down Jarvis Landry and OBJ. They'll have enough trouble dealing with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to take pressure off of Baker Mayfield and offer the third ear QB some clean shots deep downfield. BROWNS 28-14
TITANS AT VIKINGS- It's difficult to see the Vikings stopping the Titans. They have yet to put the brakes on any opponent, and the Titans are red-hot. TITANS 38-20
RAIDERS AT PATRIOTS- The Patriots will take a big step up this week. They lost an impossibly close game in Seattle last week, and although the Raiders looked strong in their win over the Saints, I also don't believe the Saints are an elite team anymore. This one will be close though. PATRIOTS 34-27
49ERS AT GIANTS- The 49ers are without Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, and Nick Bosa, and the Giants are without Saquan Barkley. The 49ers are going on the road against a bad team, but they're probably missing too many integral cogs in their system to win a game right now. GIANTS 20-14
BENGALS AT EAGLES- In a matchup between two winless teams, it would make sense to give an edge to the home team, but the Bengals have been highly competitive in both of their losses, while the Eagles have been beaten like a drum. I'm not sure how this team has fallen so hard from a Super Bowl win in the recent past. They even made the playoffs last season. Joe Burrow will find his footing and Joe Mixon will rumble for 100+ yards in the first win for Cincy in 2020. BENGALS 26-17
TEXANS AT STEELERS- The Texans have some nice receivers and a talented young quarterback, but their offensive line won't be able to give him enough time to find open receivers against this Steelers defense. The Steelers barely beat a wounded Broncos team last week, but they'll continue to get better as Ben Roethlisberger continues to round back into form. STEELERS 28-14
JETS AT COLTS- This is one of the few easy predictions. The Jets don't have enough around Darnold to make an honest go of this season. The Colts aren't Super Bowl contenders, but they'll win 8 games. COLTS 31-20
PANTHERS AT CHARGERS- The Chargers took one of the top teams in the league down to the wire last weekend, and the Panthers have had an embarrassing start to the season. It's tough to imagine the Panthers traveling all the way across the country to get their first win against an objectively better team. CHARGERS 21-17
BUCCANNERS AT BRONCOS- The Bucs will continue to improve this week over a severely wounded Broncos team. Brady might even finally find rhythm with Gronk. BUCCANEERS 35-21
LIONS AT CARDINALS- The Lions are atrocious again, and I maintain my lofty opinion of the Cardinals from the beginning of the season. I don't know whether to characterize Matthew Stafford's career as a mountain of wasted potential or a total farce...or both. Either way, they're not going on the road and upsetting one of the top teams in the league. Kyler Murray will find more rhythm through the air this week. CARDINALS 24-13
COWBOYS AT SEAHAWKS- Russell Wilson is playing at too high a level right now to lose a home game to a team that just gave up 39 points to the Falcons. The Cowboys look as though they'll likely win the absolute worst division in the league, but they'll win that division with 8-9 wins--tops. This will still be a close one. SEAHAWKS 33-30
PACKERS AT SAINTS- Aaron Rodgers is still an elite quarterback, and he appears to be gunning for MVP honors thus far. Drew Brees is no longer that guy, but he has impressive weapons. This will almost certainly be the NFC's shootout of the week. I don't expect a ton of defense to be played, and the game likely won't be decided until final 2-4 minutes. PACKERS 38-35
CHIEFS AT RAVENS- The loss of Tavon Young certainly hurts the Ravens as they face one of the fastest offenses in the league. The ace up the Ravens sleeve will actually be their former top shutdown corner, Jimmy Smith. Jimmy possesses the length and strength to be able to both jam and cover Travis Kelce. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters will be tasked with covering Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, while Anthony Averett will likely cover Demarcus Robinson. Averett is the weak link in this chain, but I worry more able safety play against the elite speed of the likes of Hill. Chuck Clark is solid in coverage, but DeShon Elliot still struggles at times despite his willingness to lay the wood at a level that Earl Thomas simply isn't capable or willing at this point in his career. Patrick Mahomes' ability to throw accurately on the run will make life incredibly difficult to a Ravens defensive front that has already struggled to get consistent pressure on lesser quarterbacks. With that said, the Chiefs defense doesn't possess a J.J. Watt or even a Whitney Mercilus type player to present problems to Lamar. The Ravens can attack the Chiefs defense in ways they couldn't manage to last year, and they're just as explosive as the Chiefs, if not more so. The major difference will be the Ravens ability to get several key stops and 1-2 pivotal turnovers. This is a Ravens defense that has already limited a host of high-level receivers over the first two weeks of this season. This will be a tougher test, but Baltimore is currently the more complete team. RAVENS 31-24
GET READY FOR THE WAR OF THE WEEK ON MONDAY NIGHT!