Look between the lines: NFL’s Week 4 slate

James Hernandez has more than 15 years in the sports handicapping industry and will contribute weekly for FOXSports.com as our betting expert. Have comments or questions? Make sure to email him at jameshernandez1981@gmail.com.

James Hernandez, Contributor to FOXSports.com

Dallas Cowboys (-2) over San Diego Chargers

With three weeks in the books, the Cowboys and Chargers appear to be teams heading in opposite directions. While the Cowboys appear to be exercising the demons of past failures, the Chargers’ Groundhog Day scenario just keeps painfully replaying itself.

San Diego again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing Jake Locker to toss the game-winning touchdown pass with just 15 seconds left in Week 3’s game. Somewhere in the greater Cleveland area, Norv Turner is feeling vindicated. The Bolts continually fail to close the show even after Turner was shown the door and blamed for the lackluster and inconsistent play that has become an all-too-familiar trait of this franchise. The irony in this situation is Vince Lombardi himself would struggle to change the mediocre culture of this snake-bitten franchise.

The Cowboys have a healthy Demarco Murray infusing new life into the running game and Monte Kiffin incorporating his patented Tampa 2 scheme with a talented defensive group. It seems this may finally be the year when Jason Garrett guides Dallas to its first playoff appearance under his leadership and the team’s first since 2009. As long as Romo sticks to the script and avoids hero ball, Dallas should be able to dictate the pace of the game, control both lines of scrimmage and win on the road — that is, if you even consider this a road game. It may be in San Diego, however it will be the Dallas fans who will outnumber and ultimately drown out the cheers of Charger fans. The latter must be growing tired of visiting fans taking over their stadium and making themselves right at home.

The Bolts will once again keep it interesting, but bow out in the end as Dallas will do just enough to earn a road win and cover.

Philadelphia Eagles/Denver Broncos over 58

I thought this could finally be the week when we see a total posted in the mid-to-high 60’s, however this number is only in the upper 50’s. With a start to the season that seems destined to rewrite the record books, Peyton Manning can do no wrong. Scoring 127 points in three games (42.3 ppg) would sound crazy even in college football. Now that the Broncos are putting up points with that kind of efficiency, defensive coordinators must be turning into insomniacs while trying to craft a game plan that can slow down this offense.

Chip Kelly and his Eagles have not been able stop much defensively as they have surrendered 86 points in three games (28.5 ppg). What’s worse is they haven’t faced an offense as electric as Denver’s. It seems their only chance to compete against the Broncos will be to outscore them and put up points as quickly and efficiently as possible. Luckily for Philly, the Broncos D will still be without Champ Bailey and suspended linebacker Von Miller, so putting up a 30-spot is well within reach for Kelly’s guys. That is, as long as Vick can remain upright and LeSean McCoy and Desean Jackson are not bled dry by the pace of their new offense.

At the end of the day, Philly’s D should get the worse end of the matchup, however look for Denver’s defense to gas out trying to keep up with the maniacal pace of the Eagles’ offense. Look for both offenses to pile up points as they march up and down the field, scoring easier than Vinny Chase after a movie premier. Don’t be surprised if we have a combined score totaling 40-plus by halftime and when the game clock reaches zero, both teams should have pushed the game total well into the 60’s.

New England Patriots/Atlanta Falcons over 49

It’s harder and harder to deny the greatness of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. With offensive options that resemble a practice squad instead of adequate NFL talent, the Pats have managed to get off to another 3-0 start (yawn) and keep the tone around the team business as usual. With an offseason as tumultuous as it gets, the Patriots continue to win games and compensate for their injuries and roster deficiencies better than any other team in the NFL. With Rob Gronkowski rumored to make his 2013 debut, his 38 receiving touchdowns since 2010 should be just what the doctor ordered for Brady to keep his sanity and allow him to finally have a playmaker.

Gronk will immediately command respect from opposing defenses and give Tom Terrific the safety blanket he has lacked all season. Atlanta’s struggles to generate a pass rush (five sacks in three games) and a pass defense that ranks 25th in the league should allow Brady the necessary time in the pocket to expose a vulnerable secondary and provide his playmakers plenty of opportunities to find pay dirt.

On the flip side, Matt Ryan and his core group of playmakers have struggled to consistently score points without Steven Jackson and a healthy Roddy White. The good news is both teams seem to be getting healthy at the right time and with the improving condition of White’s ankle, this may be the week where the Falcons passing offense resembles the dominant unit from a season ago. Playing under the dome in primetime will surely bring out the best from Brady and Ryan so look for the pigskin to fly as these two teams compete tooth and nail. This game should have plenty of offensive fireworks and there should be no trouble going over the posted total of 49.

Arizona Cardinals (+3) over Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Has anyone had a tougher week than the Bucs? After a loss that was anything but competitive, Tampa Bay returned home only to find out that QB Josh Freeman was no longer a part of the team’s future plans. In a surprising move reeking of desperation, head coach Greg Schiano chose to replace Freeman with rookie signal-caller Mike Glennon. It’s no secret that Schiano had fallen out of love with Freeman after the way last season ended and he clearly desired a quarterback who fit his coaching style and system. But to insert a rookie as early as Week 4 and basically throw in the towel on the season can’t sit well with his players.

In a move that is sure to divide an already shaky locker room, Schiano now knows he’s coaching for his job from here on out. If things get worse, he may be forced to walk the plank sooner rather than later.

Although Arizona got exposed last week, it as been a reliable cover team as underdogs, going 2-1 against the spread after the first three weeks. This included an outright win over Detroit in Week 2. Look for the veteran QB Carson Palmer to get back on track by hooking up with Larry Fitzgerald early and often as he continues to improve from a nagging hamstring injury. Fitz will surely be fired up to go against Darrelle Revis in a matchup sure to bring the best out of both superstars.

Head coach Bruce Arians desperately needs his running game to step up and improve on the 3.9 yards per carry they’ve been giving him to start the year. If they can get rolling, Arians’ veteran quarterback can have the time to take some shots downfield. With a scaled-back playbook and jittery rookie under center, look for the Cardinals defense to sell out to stop Doug Martin and put heat on Glennon all afternoon. They’ll entrust All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson and standout rookie Tyrann Mathieu to man up with Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams on the outside. This should allow the rest of the defense to fly around the ball and make plays, en route to a cover and possibly even an outright win for Arizona.

Cincinnati Bengals (-4.5) over Cleveland Browns

In the first of two meetings for the Battle of Ohio, the Bengals find themselves in a very unfamiliar situation. Looking to establish themselves as true title contenders, Cincinnati will try to start 2-0 in the division and improve to 3-1 overall as it looks to win the AFC North for the first time since 2009.

Despite the Browns’ ability to rally around their circumstances and make me look like a complete fool in the process for picking the Vikings to beat them last week, I refuse to believe they can duplicate that performance against a much better divisional opponent.

Running back Giovani Bernard introduced himself to the world over the last two weeks and has become the home-run threat the Bengals were hoping for when they invested a second-round pick on him this past spring. Wide receiver AJ Green will have cornerback Joe Haden shadowing him, but if QB Andy Dalton is patient, he should be able to find mismatches elsewhere on the field. Dalton will try and utilize Tyler Eifert, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and others as offensive coordinator Jay Gruden continues to find creative ways to distribute the ball to his playmakers.

The Bengals’ front four should be able to generate a fierce pass rush all day long as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer unleashes his exotic blitz packages against a relatively inexperienced signal caller. Without the threat of a consistent running game, the Browns will ask QB Brian Hoyer to throw for the victory and this opportunistic Bengals secondary is capable of picking off a pass or two and setting up the offense with some short fields and easy scoring opportunities.

Expect the Bengals to keep the pedal to the metal on offense and bring the hammer down defensively as they continue to click on both sides of the ball and eventually wear down a scrappy, but shorthanded Browns team on their way to a convincing win and cover.

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