Well, it didn’t take long to underscore the fragility of a survivor pool entry and this column’s continued relevance. Three of most popular Week 1 picks — Seahawks over Dolphins, Chiefs over Chargers and Texans over Bears — ranged from concerning (Houston), dire (Seattle) and “screw it, I’m changing the channel” (Kansas City) before ultimately landing “W” side up. And those of you who flouted my caution against taking the Packers at the Jaguars probably felt pangs of self-loathing at some point during Jacksonville’s spread-covering performance.
Let me remind you again that last year’s NFL Week 2 resulted in the mass survivor pool extinction. I don’t expect all five of the most popular six selections to get waxed in a single week again but as always, s*** happens. And let’s review what I offer as guidelines once more, and try to make some sense of this week’s slate that looks somewhat precarious after one no-brainer pick.
• Rule No. 1 (really, the only rule): Just survive and advance.
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• Rule No. 2 (a.k.a. the Meryl Streep Principle): Whenever possible, take a proven, consistent, veteran-led home team against an inferior opponent.
• Rule No. 3: Avoid road teams until you don't have any other choice.
• Rule No. 4: Avoid divisional opponent games. They know each other well and like each other less.
• Rule No. 5: Don't “save” a top team for later in the season.
CAROLINA PANTHERS vs. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
After a September 8 loss at Denver in their opener, the Panthers will have had 10 days to rest and prepare for a West coast team making a cross-country trip to the East coast, which is a proven challenge, plus San Francisco has a shortened week after playing the Rams on Monday night.
The Panthers represent this week’s most popular pick (35% in FOX Survivor pools), as they should be. Despite how talented the Rams made the 49ers appear on Monday, they’re still a talent-lacking bunch and just not a good team. With defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short and linebacker Luke Kuechly manning the center of Panthers' defense, a mediocre 49ers offensive line will struggle to run the ball (and Carolina won’t be fooled by any read-option), and then San Francisco will need Blaine Gabbert to beat Carolina with his arm, or for Carolina to make a lot of mistakes. Sure, it could happen, but I think there’s a lower chance than getting a 1,000 word response from Bill Belichick at a press conference. Crap, that happened, yesterday? Heavy favorites usually don’t cover double-digit spreads like the 13.5 here, but I don’t see Carolina losing this football game.
BALTIMORE RAVENS at CLEVELAND BROWNS
This is the second most popular pick in FOX Survivor pools (22%) and Yahoo! Pools (29%), which is not terribly surprising given last week’s results and the public’s penchant for overreaction. But picking the Ravens right now violates rules 2, 3 and 4 above.
The Ravens managed just 12 points against a Bills team that the Jets just torched for nearly 500 yards and 37 points on Thursday night (of course the Jets offense is really good). Wideout Mike Wallace gives Joe Flacco a deep threat that they lacked last season and the offensive line is capable of being one of the league’s top units, but the offense just hasn’t proven anything yet.
The caveat here is that the Browns defense might be profoundly bad this season, not just regular bad, the kind of bad that not even Jon Taffer could save.
The good news for the Browns is that QB Josh McCown gives them a much better chance than Robert Griffin III and tight end Gary Barnidge might even get to touch the ball this week thanks to the change! Hue Jackson will have some tricks up his sleeve and he does have some decent offensive weapons at his disposal with Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell, Cory Coleman and Terrelle Pryor (WR pass alert). Josh McCown had a 93.3 passer rating season, folks, better than — wait for it — Aaron Rodgers (92.7). I think the Browns are going to win 1-2 games this year, likely at home. This might be one of them. I’d avoid this game and hope that a quarter of your pool carelessly steps onto a mine.
ARIZONA CARDINALS vs. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
On one hand, let’s not overreact to Arizona’s loss to the Patriots. Even undermanned (no Gronk, no Brady), with ample time to prepare, Darth Belichick and the Patriots can cause any team fits. It’s been just one week against a top-tier foe, but Arizona’s secondary may have taken a step back with cornerback Jerraud Powers gone and rookie Brandon Williams in his place, strong safety Rashad Johnson also gone and former backup Tony Jefferson taking over, plus Tyrann Mathieu is still less than one year removed from an ACL tear.
AND LET’S NOT OVERREACT BUT… Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers handily beat their division foe Atlanta Falcons and held them to a mere 2.4 yards rushing on 22 carries. Plus Winston has some big receivers (Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson) who can pose problems for Arizona’s secondary. Of course, Bruce Arians’ defense is going to blitz early and often and Winston hasn’t proven yet he can consistently make plays with pressure in his face. Last year he completed only 50.7 percent of passes against the blitz, the second worst rate last season.
Ultimately I think the Cardinals win this game because Tampa Bay’s secondary is highly suspect (26th in DVOA in 2015) and they will have their hands full with Arizona’s stacked WR corps. Also David Johnson > Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and the Cards ought to be playing with some some desperation here after a disappointing loss. That said, Tampa Bay most definitely can win this game so you’re much wiser to take the Panthers.
DETROIT LIONS vs. TENNESSEE TITANS
(Stands up, walks around, sits back down.) I needed to remove some personal survivor pool animosity toward the Lions from having gotten ejected from pools with them in the past, including in Week 15 in 2012 against a 3-9 Cardinals team led by Ryan Lindley that turned into a 38-10 bloodbath.
Anecdotes aside, I think the Lions are just an OK option. Detroit’s rushing defense is better than its passing defense which bodes well against Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense, but the Lions got absolutely gashed defensively last week and didn’t inspire much confidence. Marcus Mariota isn’t exactly Andrew Luck and the Titans won’t game plan like the Colts anyway, but the Lions have struggled to cover tight ends and so Titans TE Delanie Walker could be primed for a big week. Plus the Colts’ improved offensive line prevented the Lions from getting much of a pass rush last week. This is a game the Lions should win but now close your eyes and picture Jim Caldwell’s thousand-yard stare after watching Marcus Mariota throw for 253 yards and three touchdowns plus 78 rushing yards — and a touchdown reception! You can see it, can’t you?
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS at LOS ANGELES RAMS
As bad as the Rams looked on Monday night and as much as I enjoyed all the jokes about Jeff Fisher and “7-9 bull***,” there’s a 97.38% chance you see a better performance out of them this week. I’m reserving 2.62% because quarterback Case “he’s still our starting QB” Keenum is not good.
First of all, a Seahawks pick violates rules 3 and 4 above. Second of all, Seattle’s once again reformed offensive line is terrible. Third, Russell Wilson sprained his ankle in Week 1 and while he says he’s “ready to roll,” Wilson is an almost inhumanely optimistic person and I wonder if he’s really as healthy as he says he is. And consider that the Rams have actually beaten the Seahawks straight up in three of their past four meetings! The last time it was in Seattle in December 2015 when they were led by… Case Keenum.
The Rams just got humiliated on national television and Todd Gurley is right now the best running back in the league (even if his offensive line lets him down), and Aaron Donald one of the best defensive tackles in the league and he is going to feast on Seattle’s interior like Ben Stiller at the end of Dodgeball.
Those are the top five most popular picks, friends. Other picks I like better than Baltimore, Seattle and Detroit:
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS vs. MIAMI DOLPHINS: I won’t be laying 6.5 or 7 with the Patriots but this is a game the Patriots ought to and probably will win.
DENVER BRONCOS vs. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Andrew Luck will get his yards, maybe even 300-plus, but the Broncos will get theirs too against a weak Colts defense.
OAKLAND RAIDERS vs. ATLANTA FALCONS: The Falcons… stink.
Pick your poison and check back here tomorrow for the best prop bets of Week 2.