Talking heads are criticizing Blaine Gabbert's happy feet in the pocket, Maurice Jones-Drew is still holding out, and they are coming off a Week 3 blowout in Baltimore. So why is it a good idea to pick the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1 of the NFL season? Let's take a closer look.
A couple days ago, Steve Fezzek tweeted the following:
Talk about a game that has ZERO interest or action, VIKES -4.5, 38 vs. jax.I haven't seen ANY MOVEMENT ANYWHERE on this one all summer.
— Steve Fezzik (@FezzikSports) August 27, 2012
Just in case you aren't familiar with Steve Fezzik, he is the only person to win the renowned Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest two times, and he did it in back-to-back years.
If I'm the first one to show any interest in this game, so be it. I fail to see why the line is set at -4.5 (odds courtesy of SBRforum) and it's even more puzzling why the line has stood there all preseason.
I suspect people want no part of a game that comes with so many unknowns, but despite the questions, we should be fairly optimistic and confident in one aspect of this game—the Jaguars' defense.
Questions, Questions, Questions.
Handicapping matchups on paper is always a tricky venture heading into a season because no one is quite sure how the question marks on each team will play out. For the Jags, the concerns about Gabbert and MJD are well documented. Another big concern is the enigma otherwise known as Marcedes Lewis. Last season was a write-off for apparent personal issues, according to the Florida Times-Union.
Beyond that, no one is quite sure if Jacksonville will be able to get the sacks and pressures needed from their D-line. Last season, they were 13th in adjusted sack rate, but only 24th in overall pressure (Football Outsiders). Their O-line have more appointments with the medical staff than Mike Vick.
Yet, the questions are just as significant for the Vikings. Adrian Peterson is reportedly going to play, but his effectiveness will be hindered coming off major knee surgeries, rehab, and lack of playing time.
Christian Ponder is way ahead of where he was in his rookie year, but it hasn't translated to the field yet. Outside of Percy Harvin, there isn't a lot to get excited about at wideout—especially with Jerome Simpson out for the opener. The secondary is young and Chris Cook is just getting back from a preseason concussion.
Sometimes, when we have undervalued underdogs, it isn't a matter of favorable mismatches but a lack of mismatches for the other team. Pick apart this matchup and show me one area where the Vikings have enough of an advantage to warrant this spread.
If you want to tell me that Jared Allen is unblockable and that he will wreak enough havoc to render Gabbert completely ineffective, ok. I'll give Allen his due, but I don't think Gabbert is the same timid QB we saw last year.
I'm not declaring he's about to lead the Jags to an 8-8 season, but he's shown enough improvement to give this offense a chance. With a full offseason of OTAs and training camp, the coaching has made a difference. Marcedes Lewis' off-field problems are a thing of the past, and Justin Blackmon adds a legitimate raw threat on the outside.
Currently, there is no MJD, but I'm sure the bookmakers created this line under the assumption that he would be back. Now it's looking that there is a real possibility that he won't be, and even if he does he won't be in game shape.
The good news comes two-fold: 1) Rashad Jennings has looked good in camp and in the preseason and 2) the running game is much less important in today's NFL than before.
The common myth is that teams need the running game to set up the pass, but in reality the stats suggest the complete opposite. Statistically, the pass sets up the run once teams have the lead. What is much more important than compiling 100-plus rushing yards is running the ball effectively in critical situations—primarily getting first downs to sustain drives and run the clock.
Not having MJD isn't good given his rushing ability, pass catching, and blocking, but his absence is not going to cripple Jacksonville like some people say it will.
Not many teams were hit as hard by the injury bug a year ago as Jacksonville and they still managed to have a dominant defense both against the pass and the run. Now they are healthy, I see this as their biggest weapon heading into Minnesota in Week 1.
Andre Branch is raw and still learning, but he's the kind of added punch they need up front. The secondary should give Ponder some concerns and Paul Posluszny is a beast in the middle.
Is it risky putting faith into the unproven Blaine Gabbert and MJD-less Jaguars? Sure. But this pick is based on the trust in their defense and a complete fade of the Vikings.
It's my opinion that the Vikings have more critical questions on both sides of the ball than the Jaguars. If I were setting this line, I would have Minnesota favored by 2.5 points at the most. I'll gladly take the extra points above the critical three and ride the road dog here.
NFL Pick: JAX +4.5.