Riffs, rants, observations and dissenting opinions from the voices in my head: Here's a warped and dented take on this weekend's games and a not-so-successful effort to hopscotch through the NFL's ugly controversy land mine.
Note: All times listed are Eastern, odds are via Odds Shark and games are listed in the order you should record them.
Broncos at Seahawks
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Seahawks -3.5.
Remember Super Bowl XLVIII? Good times. A polar vortex gripped New York and New Jersey for days—you needed a sled team and a keg of brandy to get from Central Park to Times Square—prompting fears of snow, ice-bound roads and slightly chilled Peyton Manning fingers for the big game.
Super Bowl Sunday arrived, and suddenly funnel-cake-on-the-boardwalk weather descended on North Jersey. It was so warm that the heat lamps the league provided for outdoor reporters caramelized laptop screens like crème brulee. The game ended, fans poured onto the trains (singular) leaving the Meadowlands, and about an hour after the final gun a frozen drizzle started. By dawn, the drizzle turned to wet, clumpy snow that closed schools and caused transit havoc that would have ruined the Super Bowl.
It was almost as Roger Goodell had made a deal with the devil for that window of spring weather, one that ol' Lucifer would begin compounding interest upon just days later.
Heh, yeah, almost. (Uneasy silence).
The Seahawks, you probably recall, made pulpwood out of the Broncos.
A lot has happened to both teams since then. Richard Sherman has fallen prey to the Shutdown Cornerback Observer Effect: studying an All-Pro cornerback's performance automatically weakens his performance. Wes Welker has gone from Hipster Archduke of Churchill Downs to concussed to suspended to suddenly reprieved. Other Super Bowl missing pieces, like Ryan Clady and Von Miller, have returned. The Broncos needed a missed field goal and a goal-line stand to beat a Chiefs team without Jamaal Charles last week, but no one noticed because the Seahawks defense was being "exposed" by the Chargers.
No, the Seahawks were not "exposed." You don't beat one of the best quarterbacks and offenses in NFL history 43-8 in the Super Bowl, then suddenly become a fraud because Philip Rivers worked his cocky-old-guy mojo on you. The Seahawks got a few notable reminders, and it could not have come at a worse time for the Broncos.
The Seahawks were reminded that their linebackers, while very good, cannot quite cover All-Pro-caliber tight ends just yet. The wake-up call arrived just in time to come up with something smarter against Julius Thomas. They were reminded that taking early sacks and noodling with Robert Turbin and Bryan Walters is no way for a team that is nearly unbeatable when holding a lead to start a game, and they got that message just in time to face a defense that looks vulnerable to smash-mouth tactics.
And the Seahawks were reminded how they won the Super Bowl: with sound, simple defensive game-plans, big doses of Wilson-Lynch-Harvin and playing with something to prove. Now that the Chargers put that chip back on the Seahawks' shoulders, the Broncos must prepare to relive some bad memories.
Prediction: Seahawks 26, Broncos 24.
Redskins at Eagles
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Eagles -7.
Here are some tips for watching the Redskins this week from a handy pamphlet produced by the American Journal of NFL Skepticism: How to Think About Kirk Cousins Without Going Crazy:
• Tweeting "I told you he was better than RG3" after Cousins' first two completions will not make you sound insightful. Even if you do it ironically.
• Rollout passes to fullbacks and tight ends is the quarterback equivalent of tying your shoes and tucking your shirttail in. Completing a bunch of them does not make a quarterback a "system fit," but someone the coaches are trying to protect.
• Speaking of "system fits," the best fit for most offensive systems is the most talented quarterback. If a system is designed to work better with a less talented quarterback, that may be a problem with the system. There are exceptions, but usually "better fit for the system" means "not that good, but I just like him better."
• "Finding a way to win" is a polite sportswriter euphemism for "bad quarterback bailed out by his defense." If a quarterback finds a way to win that involves throwing accurate passes and making big plays, we tend to specify those things.
• It takes four to six games to get a read on a new quarterback. JaMarcus Russell looked pretty good in his first start (one touchdown, 74 percent completion rate); Peyton Manning threw 11 interceptions in his first four games. Win or lose, it's OK to let the postgame narrative set sail without you.
• If you find yourself using terms like "throwback," "blue-collar leader" or "more of a quarterback than an athlete" to describe your feelings on Cousins, report for sensitivity training on Monday at 2 p.m. in the upstairs conference room. Don't wear the Welker jersey.
• If Cousins throws for 27 touchdowns and two interceptions while leading the Redskins to the playoffs this season, you should enjoy the ride for a few minutes before shifting immediately into the "he's not passionate enough" backlash.
DeSean Jackson says he will play on Sunday, sparing both teams the awkward feeling of not missing him even a little bit.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Redskins 21.
49ers at Cardinals
Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Line: 49ers -2.5.
The Cardinals are 2-0, but you may not have seen them yet, because they played one Late Late Show game and faced the painful-to-watch Giants while seven other games were on last Sunday. It may be a little early for a Cardinals Super Bowl Bandwagon, but this is a 10-win team with the capability of monkey wrenching the power balance in the toughest division in football on Sunday, so we should at least examine some of the reasons the Cardinals are winning.
Their defense swarms. Injuries and suspensions have not changed Todd Bowles' scheme. Blitzers fly from everywhere, and the opposing line rarely sees the same front twice. Veterans such as linebacker Larry Foote and lineman Tommy Kelly have stepped in to fill roles vacated by Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett. Second-year pro Tony Jefferson is everywhere in the secondary.
Calais Campbell is amazing. He has been a starter for six years, played for the Cardinals Super Bowl team and recorded 37.5 sacks, but Campbell may be playing the best football of his career right now.
The Three Tight End Attack is Rocking. Twelve different players have already caught passes for the Cardinals, a testament to Bruce Arians' ability to mix-and-match personnel. Arians' signature tactic remains the three-tight end attack, now featuring John Carlson, Troy Niklas and Rob Housler (hobbled with a hip injury, but Arians carries four tight ends) on the field at the same time. Three tight ends completely confound run keys—suddenly, there's a "J" gap—and create mismatches.
Here's a diagram of something the Cardinals pulled on the Giants late in the second quarter. Start with three tight ends left, motion Carlson to the right, run some pulling-guard play action, send Larry Fitzgerald deep to occupy the free safety and watch three Giants defenders discover too late that a heavy run to the left has morphed into a deep corner pass to the right. As an added bonus, three tight ends make it easy to support shaky pass protection.
Special Teams Matter. Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt for a touchdown. Kenny Demens forced a fumble. Thanks to Chandler Catanzaro, the Cardinals are one of the few NFL teams that replaced their veteran kicker but do not regret it.
The Cardinals played the 49ers tight last season, so these little advantages could add up, though I will stop just short of calling for an upset. And yes, that's Jonathan Dwyer in the diagram. We've reached the point in the NFL news cycle where I was thinking of editing a player out of circles-and-squares diagram. That's probably taking things too far, though I fully endorse editing him out of the active roster.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Cardinals 22.
Chargers at Bills
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Bills -2.5.
You overlooked Antonio Gates, didn't you? The Seahawks sure did. You can hear their defensive meeting room now. Shmahh, that old guy? We'll cover him man-to-man with our linebackers. Now that we have settled that, let's whip out our smartphones and Tweet self-aggrandizingly!
Gates, who was limited in practice this week but should play, is often overlooked; Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight Sports even graphed the phenomenon. Gates has been hearing about getting old ever since he started getting old several years ago.
"Outsiders tend to have their perspective about players," he said on the Chargers' website. "It never bothered me one time. If I can make this team, which is a very good football team, then obviously I had something left in the gas tank." After three touchdowns against the Seahawks and Offensive Player of the Week honors, no one is going to overlook the second best tight end in history again.
If you are on the Bills bandwagon after one of their traditional hot starts, I have the contract for an Ivy League-educated journeyman quarterback to sell you for $59 million.
Prediction: Chargers 24, Bills 20.
Cowboys at Rams
Sunday, 1 p.m.
It's official: There is no quarterback controversy too sad or insignificant to be fluffed up and made into a thing. Case in point: Shaun Hill, 34-year-old backup-for-hire and emergency starter, versus Austin Davis, second-year third-stringer who played adequately last week in a super-duper emergency start. Hill will return from thigh injury soon (he was still limited in late-week practices), and Fisher asserted on Monday that he will keep his starting job. The quotes below are from Fisher; the questions are loose paraphrases of the real press-conference questions.
Are you sure coach? Davis looked awfully good. "If Shaun is healthy and able to play, and not going to subject himself to re-injuring this or making it worse, then Shaun's our quarterback and Austin's our backup. That's just the way it is."
But is there any wiggle room, coach? "No...You can ask me again, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, if you want—you're going to get the same answer."
You want to sleep on it? "I'm not sleeping on it. I got it."
Is this one of those "starters can't lose jobs because of injuries' philosophies?" "This has nothing to do with injury. He played because of the injury but, no."
How about waiting through next week's bye, then bringing Hill back? Have you considered that, coach? "Well, it would be a factor. Again, this is not coach-speak, it's day to day. We're going to see how he is."
After a week of press conferences like that, Fisher is going to look across the field on Sunday and wish he had Michael Sam back.
Prediction: Cowboys 22, Rams 17.
Packers at Lions
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Lions -2.5.
The double standard is less about what those two quarterbacks do and more about how they do it. Rodgers sees Nelson isolated one-on-one against some Jets practice squad-caliber cornerback and figures, "let's see who wins." Stafford sees Johnson bracketed by two defenders, ignores Brandon Pettigrew and Joique Bell looking lonely in the flats (even though it is first down) and says, "yeah, I can throw it through that safety." Or he goes through a very Staffordian progression of reads: "That guy’s not Megatron, that guy's not Megatron, I have no idea who No. 10 is at all...oh, there's Megatron, sitting in a zone between three defenders waiting to converge!"
The Lions also have a special teams problem: New kicker Nate Freese has missed all three of his field-goal attempts beyond 30 yards, and Jeremy Ross fumbled a kickoff return. It only took a week for Lions' fundamental flaws to start creeping up. At least the last coaching staff held those off until the leaves started to turn.
Prediction: Packers 23, Lions 21.
Texans at Giants
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Texans -1.
Arian Foster has picked up where he left off two seasons ago, combining big plays, receptions and grind-it-out yardage. (J.J. Watt rules!) Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins have kept the offense moving with their tough catches against tight coverage. (J.J. Watt!) The secondary has been opportunistic, stripping balls away from receivers to force turnovers. (J.!) A soft early schedule has helped, (J.!), but both Texans wins have been convincing (Watt!), and early success can have a big impact on the long-term implementation of a new coach's system. (WattWattWattWattWattWattWatt!!!!!)
Yes, Watt is amazing, but he is absorbing a lot of adulation from a football world that is not sure who is OK to root for these days. If it turns out that he is hiding some disturbing, nauseating skeleton in his closet, I am not just quitting the NFL beat but moving to the Australian Outback to eat fire ants in the shadow of Uluru and contemplate eternal mysteries for the rest of my life. And I may not be alone. But no pressure, J.J. Just keep on keepin' it real.
Prediction: Texans 24, Giants 20.
Vikings at Saints
Sunday, 1 p.m
Line: Saints -11.
Everyone is angry at Rob Ryan these days. Including Rob Ryan.
"These communication errors can't keep happening. Or we're just killing the team right now," Ryan said of the loss to the Browns. "We know we're solely responsible for the two losses that we have. Our offense has been doing great, our special teams have been doing great.”
Well, to be fair, the offense has committed four turnovers and stalled in the red zone a few times. And the special teams has averaged minus-two yards per punt return (Brandin Cooks is a great talent but likes to push all the game controller buttons at once). But yeah, when safeties jump offsides and cornerbacks do not know who to cover on the final drive, that's a problem. "Every two-minute situation we've had this year, we've blown," Ryan said.
If the other Saints coaches are beating themselves up the way Ryan is, the team should correct its problems quickly. But the team is in trouble if the other coaches are content to beat up on Ryan.
Prediction: Saints 30, Vikings 17.
Titans at Bengals
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Bengals -7.5.
A.J. Green is back from the minor ankle injury that sidelined him late in the Falcons game. That's great news for the Bengals, who are already missing sideline tight-roper Marvin Jones. Without Jones and Green, the Bengals passing game collapses into a horizontal one-dimensional ribbon that can only threaten a strip of field within 18 inches of the line of scrimmage. And the Bengals already used their annual Mohamed Sanu trick-play bomb. So Green's return saves us from an adventure in Flatland.
The Bengals can also count on their running game, or at least their willingness to use their running game. The Titans assembled Shonn Greene, Bishop Sankey, Dexter McCluster and Leon Washington this offseason so Ken Whisenhunt could give them five, two, four and zero carries, respectively, while Jake Locker showed off his 52.9 percent completion rate against a terrible defense. Whisenhunt did not abandon the run against the Cowboys, he forsook it. Whisenunt is one of those strict pass-run-pass play-callers: pass on first down, run on 2nd-and-10 after the incompletion, pass on 3rd-and-9 because the defense knew the run was coming. It sets up a neat 67-33 pass-run ratio that is rarely spoiled by messy first downs.
The Titans thought they hired the architect of the Chargers' 2013 offense. No, that guy was beating the Seahawks last Sunday. They got the guy who once called 52 passes in a game for Ryan Lindley.
Prediction: Bengals 22, Titans 13.
Colts at Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Colts -7.5.
The Seahawks are like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Richard Sherman is The Boss, Russell Wilson is Little Steven and last week's game was Devils & Dust.
To extend the analogy, the Jaguars are like one of the many Springsteen wannabe bands that have popped up over the years and still earn a living playing "Badlands" over and over again in New Jersey beach bars. The Jaguars even went out of their way to sign a guy named C. Clemons; that's how deep it goes.
So to best assess the highs and lows of Gus Bradley's year-and-some-change on the job in Jacksonville, I proudly introduce the Jaguars Seahawks Springsteen Wannabe Index (JSSWI):
Jaguars start the 2013 season 0-8, with numerous blowouts. JSSWI: Your brother-in-law screaming "Glory Days" into a karaoke microphone during his 40th birthday cookout.
Jaguars rebound to finish 4-4. JSSWI: Tramps Like Us. They are the cover band that played during last year's Super Bowl Media Day, because nothing makes it easy to transcribe garbled interview tape like a rousing rendition of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."
Jaguars sign several ex-Seahawks in Free Agency. JSSWI: Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers.
Blake Bortles and others look great in the preseason. JSSWI: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The Jaguars are having a party, and everybody's swingin'!
Jaguars cough up 17-0 lead to lose opener to Eagles. JSSWI: John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. One-half wonders, in other words.
Marcedes Lewis and Allen Hurns injured in 41-10 loss to injury-ravaged Redskins. JSSWI: Good evening and welcome to fabulous Conference Room B here at the Airport Ramada. I'm Ron "the Baby Boss" Flatrockski, this is my digital sequencer, and tonight we will be entertaining you fine folks from the Stumpy Pines retirement community by performing The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle in its entirety.
For their part, the Colts went from "first half bad, second half great, Trent Richardson silly" to "first half great, second half silly, Trent Richardson great as long as everyone blocks like the 1983 Redskins" last week for a change of pace. Tune in Sunday when they download their highlights directly into your smartphone, causing you to a) worry about the privacy you have sacrificed in the name of restaurant-locator apps, and b) wish you were listening to Under a Blood Red Sky instead.
Prediction: Colts 27, Jaguars 10.
Raiders at Patriots
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Line: Patriots -15.
How do the Patriots manage to get these SEC-worthy September schedules? They faced the Dolphins in a kickoff challenge, but now they are in the middle of a two-game tune-up against last-place teams from 2013. Tennessee-Chattanooga and Georgia Southern must have been unavailable. Things heat up with the Chiefs and Bengals in back-to-back weeks, but it is great to host some FCS schools so you can win a few games with blocked punts while sorting out your starting offensive line.
The Raiders are no threat to the Patriots, and assuming the Patriots work at least a split with the Chiefs and Bengals, they will be 3-2 or 4-1 before continuing their conference schedule against Kentucky and Arkansas...oops, the Jets and Bills.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Raiders 9.
Chiefs at Dolphins
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Line: Dolphins -3.5.
No Jamaal Charles (or a very limited Charles) and no Knowshon Moreno means no "early Wild Card implications" preview for these guys. The Chargers and Bills have stolen their thunder...
Cairo Santos is not John Rhys-Davies' Indiana Jones movie character ("bad dates"); he's the Chiefs' new kicker. Santos clanked a 48-yarder off an upright against the Titans (he also ricocheted a successful field goal off an upright) and missed a 37-yarder against the Broncos. So Santos could use a little help.
Sam McDowell of the Kansas City Star sat with Santos as the kicker analyzed his own mechanics, noticing places where he rushed his pre-kick process or his head snapped up too quickly after striking the ball. It's a fascinating look at the fundamentals of an athletic act that is more like a golf swing than anything else that happens on a football field.
Santos knows that he must stop missing chip shots and endangering uprights soon; replacement kickers are not hard to find. "I know patience runs out in the NFL," Santos said. "That’s something I'm aware of."
Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill just poked their head up from their playbooks. Patience runs out in the NFL? How come nobody warned us?
Prediction: Dolphins 24, Chiefs 14.
Steelers at Panthers
Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Line: Panthers -3.
DeAngelo Williams (thigh) is not expected to return on Sunday. Mike Tolbert (chest) is also questionable after a massive collision with Nick Fairley. Third-string running back Fozzy Whittaker is also out with a quad injury. Other banged-up Panthers who should be able to play on Sunday in some capacity: Kelvin Benjamin (knee), Greg Olsen (calf), Jason Avant (thigh), Dwan Edwards (back) and kick returner Philly Brown (ankle), who sounds like either a rapper who flunked an audition with The Roots or a rejected Crayola color. (It can be used to draw cheese steaks!)
Cam Newton is obviously not 100 percent from his rib injury—he gets up after sacks like a 70-year old climbing out of a rowboat—and Thomas Davis is also on the injury report, though for him that may be an honorary position-for-life.
That's pretty much the whole Panthers active roster but Jonathan Stewart and Luke Kuechly. But problems like these are inevitable when the guys you are counting on are named Fozzy Whittaker and Philly Brown.
Prediction: Steelers 19, Panthers 16.
Ravens at Browns
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Last week's Ravens game was not a lot of fun to watch. I watched it because I am paid to and, well, we were all going to watch a Ravens game again sometime, so it made sense to get it over with. It was the football equivalent of a prostate exam.
That said, the game was illuminating in one respect: the Ravens' 26-6 victory over the Steelers destroyed the "distraction" argument forever, at least as far barstool or talk-radio handicapping is concerned.
Now, teams will still be distracted by scandals and the like; Mike Freeman reported on Monday that some 49ers players admitted that all of last week's awful NFL news got into their heads. But we have no way of knowing whether distractions will hurt a team or not, no matter what bombs are dropping around them.
The Ravens-Steelers game proved it. The Ray Rice video was not a quarterback controversy or some bench-warmer who gets too much attention. It dug deep into the organization and forced players to confront graphic, awful realities about a former teammate in the locker room and at home. It was the kind of thing wives and grandmas call on the phone asking about. The Ravens lived with Rice's actions non-stop while preparing for a division rival during a short practice week. They then methodically kicked butt.
The Rice saga has transitioned from All Consuming Ethical Dilemma to just another item buried in the NFL's ever-growing inbox of horror and shame. The Ravens have become just another team in purgatory, sadly. The queasy football feeling is now generalized, and we will watch on Sunday, perhaps wondering which teams are "distracted" and which aren't.
Hopefully, they are all distracted. They are all thinking not just about the game plan, but about their roles as idolized public figures, as parents and spouses, as citizens and human beings. But some of them may have an odd way of showing it. And the next time the prognosticators suggest that some team will be "distracted" by a locker room flare-up or some Twitter chatter, remember what happened in that Ravens game you did not really want to watch.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Browns 17.
Bears at Jets
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Line: Jets -2.5.
A short history of Marty Mornhinweg's attempts to ruin Geno Smith:
2013 Season: Bilal Powell Wildcat plays, generally called just after Smith completed two or three passes in a row and started to experience strange feelings of confidence.
Week 1, 2014: Insane, over-engineered trick plays with Smith and Michael Vick on the field at the same time, called at the goal line.
Week 2, 2014, First 54 Minutes: A Bilal Powell Wildcat play called at the goal-line, and an insane, over-engineered fourth-quarter trick play with Smith running a pass route (or blocking; Smith did not look too sure about what his job was) for a bootlegging Vick.
Week 2, 2014, 5:06 to Play: Worried that Smith might complete a fourth-down bomb for a touchdown, Mornhinweg rants and raves like a crazy person until a second-year defensive lineman calls a timeout for him.
This Week: After giving Powell a Curtis Martin workload, running a Vick Statue-of-Liberty play and burning all three timeouts to negate Smith touchdowns, Mornhinweg throws the challenge flag at the end of a 60-yard Smith-to-Jeremy Kerley bomb, claiming that his own quarterback had stepped over the line of scrimmage. "I just want to make sure we get these calls right," he explains. A crestfallen Smith turns to Jay Cutler for interpersonal communication advice.
Prediction: Bears 28, Jets 22.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @.