Thursday, June 23, 2016
Group stage matches are often tawdry affairs, with maximum effort early on giving way to plodding finales, with teams doing their best to advance to the knockout stages.
However, the group stages at Euro 2016 were anything but bland. An astonishing 19 goals - 27.5 percent of all goals scored thus far - were scored after the 80th minute. Northern Ireland's Niall McGinn scored the latest goal in the history of the European championship when he tallied in the 96th minute of Northern Ireland's 2-0 win over Ukraine. The leading scorers in the group stage were ... Wales and Hungary, of course.
And it's only going to get better.
There has really never been a “Bracket of Death” before, but the bottom half of this bracket may be reason to coin the term.
The reigning world champions may play the two-time defending European champs in the quarterfinals. Five of the eight teams in the bottom of the bracket have won the World Cup, holding a combined total of 11 world championships and nine European titles. Seven of the eight teams rank in the top 25 of the world football Elo ratings, with four – Germany, Spain, France and England – in the top seven. For comparison, only one of the eight teams in the top half of the bracket, Belgium, rank in the top 10.
Get ready for a wild ride. The first of 16 knockout matches kicks off at 8:00 am CST Saturday, when Switzerland takes on Poland, culminating with the final on July 10.
Let’s get to the picks.
Round of 16
Poland over Switzerland – Don’t expect a flurry of goals in this one. As expected, the Swiss defense was stingy, allowing only a single goal in three group-stage matches. Poland did them one better, joining Germany as the only teams at Euro 2016 not to concede in the group stage. Switzerland’s attack goes as Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri go, and in their first three matches, they didn’t really go at all. A true difference-maker is needed in this type of match, and Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is just that.
Croatia over Portugal – Portugal aren’t just Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 other guys, but the side is heavily reliant on the Real Madrid superstar. The same was thought to be said about Croatia and Luka Modric, until the Croatians handed Spain their first loss at the Euros since 2004 without Modric available. Croatia have one of the best midfield pairings of the 16 remaining teams, and with Modric set to return for the match against Portugal, this game is Croatia’s to lose.
Wales over Northern Ireland – The Welsh have looked excellent in their first major tournament appearance since 1958. Gareth Bale is doing Gareth Bale things (read: being really good at soccer) but he isn’t alone. Wales have a very good side featuring the likes of Ben Davies, Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor, Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and captain Ashley Williams, all of whom ply their trade in the Premier League. Northern Ireland only conceded twice in the group stage, but their attack leaves too much to be desired, which is not a recipe for success in knockout football.
Belgium over Hungary – Hungary have been fearless at these Euros. After charging out to a surprising Group F lead, the Hungarians went toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in a thrilling 3-3 draw in their group stage finale. They’re essentially playing with house money, as most expected Hungary to be fortunate to finish third in their group. Few teams are as talented as Belgium, however, and the Red Devils began showing signs of cohesion as the group stage proceeded. That is bad news for Hungary, as well as the remainder of the teams in Belgium’s path.
Germany over Slovakia – It’s hard to shake the feeling Germany never really reached top speed during the group stage. Joachim Low will have his charges ready to play for the knockout stages. Low is a serial winner – Germany has not finished worse than third in a major tournament under Low’s tutelage. Slovakia are a lively bunch, but there will be no upset at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
Italy over Spain – Spain’s death grip on European football was loosened by Croatia, and Antonio Conte’s Italian side will continue breaking the Spaniards' iron hold. Italy clinched the group after only two matches, allowing Conte to start a de-facto JV unit in the team’s final group-stage match. Though the Spanish defense is notoriously stingy, the first-team Italian side did not concede in the first two group matches. The Italians, as a whole, are greater than the sum of their parts, and will send the Spaniards home from the Euros as losers for the first time in a dozen years.
France over Ireland – There may be no better way for Ireland to exact revenge for Thierry Henry’s 2009 handball than eliminating the French on their home soil, but this French team is just too talented. Olivier Giroud, frequent misser of wide-open headers, will be Ireland’s best friend (blog-sanctioned dig at an Arsenal player) but stopping the rest of France’s attack – namely Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Dmitri Payet – will be too much for the Irish to handle. Revenge for Henry’s transgression will have to come another day.
Iceland over England – Oh, England. Despite having the Premier League’s top-two scorers in Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, the English still struggled to score in the group stage. The list of attacking talent in this side is borderline shocking – Kane, Vardy, Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli all feature for the English. Yet, the defense is questionable, as is the man between the sticks, Joe Hart. A late goal, probably thanks to a flub by Hart or Gary Cahill, will doom the English and put an end to the Roy Hodgson Era.
Poland over Croatia – Robert Lewandowski gets the headlines because he’s a talisman goal-scorer, but Poland’s side has plenty of under-appreciated talent. The likes of Lukasz Fabianski, Kamil Glik, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Arkadiusz Milik and Grzegorz Krychowiak have made life difficult for opponents at every level of the Polish side. Lewandowski, Krychowiak, Glik and Fabianski help form a formidable spine, one that is capable of forcing Croatia’s talented midfield into uncomfortable situations. This one will likely be another grinder, with Poland’s attack giving them the ever-so-slight edge.
Germany over Italy – The Italians certainly have the defense to hang with anyone in the world, Germany included. However, offensive output has held Antonio Conte's side back, and it will likely be their undoing in France. The German defense can match quality with Italy, and with a gaggle of attacking options at his disposal, Joachim Low will once again lead his German side into the final four of a major tournament.
France over Iceland – The hosts may develop a reputation as Cinderella killers before too long. After taking out Ireland, France's talent will overwhelm Iceland, ending the latter's storybook run. Don't sleep on the Icelanders, though - the program's development over the past few years has put Iceland in an enviable position moving onto World Cup 2018 and beyond.
Belgium over Poland – Without world-class talent, teams cannot grind out win after win in knockout-style tournaments. A friendly Polish draw in the first two rounds turns much more difficult when the team ranked second in the FIFA world rankings comes calling. Poland's defense is good, but not good enough to stop Kevin De Bruyne, who has been one of the best players in the Euros thus far.
Germany over France – It's potential-versus-polish when these two old rivals lock horns. Both teams are stocked with elite talent, but it is Germany's experienced side that will prevail. Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann have made deep tournament runs with their club sides, but the remainder of the squad is largely untested in knockout scenarios. In a close affair, Germany's guile will send them to the final.
Germany over Belgium – Germany are, essentially, a better version of Belgium. The Red Devils may have a slight edge at striker, since the Germans aren’t starting a true no. 9 at the top of the formation. Germany’s central defense is as good as it gets, with Bayern Munich teammates Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels setting the defense in front of another teammate, Manuel Neuer, who happens to be the best goalkeeper on the planet. Belgium’s best chance is using Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne on the wings to take advantage of Germany’s fullbacks (one of whom often isn’t a fullback by trade) and hoping Romelu Lukaku can get on the end of something in the penalty area.
The match-up isn’t that simple, though. Germany can often dictate the pace of the game at will, with Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos creating for Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller, Julian Draxler and Mario Gomez. In the end, the German talent and experience will once again prevail, and Germany will lift its first European championship since 1996.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
The summer of 2016 is the best perspective soccer fans can muster outside of a World Cup year. For the United States men’s national team, perspective brought with it a sobering reality: International relevance is still miles away.
That was never more evident than in the Copa America Centenario semifinal against Argentina. Matched up against the best team in the tournament, the Americans were embarrassed, once again, on home soil. Ezequiel Lavezzi scored in the third minute, and the subsequent 87 minutes were no more successful for the Yanks.
Despite trailing for more than 95 percent of the match, the Americans lost the possession battle, 68-32, and could not manage a single attempt on goal. Jurgen Klinsmann said the Americans would take the game to Argentina, and when presented the chance less than 270 seconds after kickoff, Klinsmann’s charges showed no signs of attacking life.
Unfulfilled promises are becoming the Klinsmann standard. The German has repeatedly promised to give youth a chance in important matches, but has yet back his words with actions. Klinsmann left Jordan Morris and Julian Green off the 23-man roster completely, while giving almost no important playing time to Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe. Down three regular starters against Argentina due to suspension, Klinsmann chose to start 34-year-old Kyle Beckerman and 33-year-old Chris Wondolowski instead of Pulisic and Nagbe.
Beckerman’s inclusion is somewhat defensible, as the dreadlocked veteran often provides a stabilizing presence in the defensive midfield. Wondolowski’s promotion to the starting XI, however, is beyond justification.
There is little doubting Wondolowski’s success at the MLS level. The San Jose Earthquakes striker has scored 31 goals in 54 appearances across all competitions over the last two seasons, but hasn’t scored in a competitive match for his country since July 2013. Despite myriad flubs – most notably, missing a wide-open goal against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup – Wondolowski has been chosen time and again for Klinsmann’s starting XI. With attacking players like Morris and Pulisic available, Klinsmann inexplicably continues to lean on the impotent Wondolowski.
Under Klinsmann, the United States' disciplinary record has been equally woeful, never more so than at this year's Copa. The USMNT has tallied a staggering 10 yellow cards, while having two players sent off, in just five matches. Klinsmann's team has also allowed five goals on set pieces in that same time frame.
Discipline, both during the run of play and in dead-ball situations, is a direct reflection of the coach. Klinsmann has let his team, and American soccer fans, down in this department as well.
In the coming days, Klinsmann will likely point to the Americans' appearance in the semifinal and call it a success. After all, it was the goal Klinsmann set for the Yanks before the tournament began.
The truth is far more complicated than that black-and-white summation.
In the Copa opener, the Yanks struggled mightily against a Colombian side that seemed, at best, marginally interested in the contest. Two matches later, the Americans had to claw their way to a 1-0 victory over Paraguay after DeAndre Yedlin was sent off in the 48th minute thanks to a pair of the aforementioned yellow cards. The USMNT then struggled to hold off Ecuador before being blown out of NRG Stadium by Argentina earlier this week.
The Americans were outshot in four of their five matches in the tournament, and lost the possession battle by at least 13 percentage points in all but one match.
The results are inconsistent. The matches against even average international competition aren't particularly close. Klinsmann gives lip service to the promising youth scattered around Europe - something he said was integral to American soccer growth - yet continues to give meaningful minutes to thirty-something players competing in MLS, a league Klinsmann has openly and repeatedly criticized. In the last two tournaments on American soil, the USMNT have been dominated leading up to their eventual elimination from the tournament.
Three weeks ago, I said the Copa America Centenario was a make-or-break competition for Klinsmann and the Yanks. After once again being one of the worst-performing teams in an international tournament, the story of Klinsmann's time in charge has been written.
The United States men's national soccer team has not, cannot, and will not move forward with Jurgen Klinsmann as its coach. The chasm between the Americans and the international elite is as big as it ever has been.
While the rest of the world shifts into gear, Klinsmann remains stuck in neutral. The Americans are coasting back down the proverbial hill with Klinsmann at the wheel.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
American sports fans have rarely settled for intangible victories. U.S. men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann seems to think American soccer fans are different.
The leader of the American men’s soccer program has touted a long-term plan for the rise of the national team since he was installed as head coach in July 2011. Along the way, there have been moments of the success Klinsmann promised: A 1-0 victory over Italy in Genoa, the USMNT’s first-ever victory over the four-time world champions; a 1-0 victory at Estadio Azteca, the first American victory at the home stadium of rival Mexico; and victories over historical powers Germany and the Netherlands.
After nearly five years, however, a handful of victories in largely meaningless matches isn’t the future American soccer fans envisioned or expected. Klinsmann has preached patience since his appointment, reminding fans that The Process is working, that it takes time to develop a system capable of competing at the highest levels of international soccer.
Klinsmann’s words are growing tired. His suspect decision-making has coupled with inconsistent results on the pitch, and fans across the United States are losing the patience they've afforded Klinsmann.
Simply put, Klinsmann has failed to deliver the type of success he promised this country five years ago.
Klinsmann set realistic expectations for the 2014 World Cup. This country wasn’t ready to compete with the world’s best, Klinsmann said, a point that is certainly hard to argue against. Klinsmann said the Americans were aiming for a trip to the knockout stage in 2014, a strangely low bar to clear considering the team’s recent performances in international tournaments.
The 2014 World Cup started brightly for the Yanks, as the United States defeated Ghana, 2-1. The victory avenged a Round of 16 loss to the Ghanaians at the 2010 World Cup. The U.S. did not carry their success through, conceding five minutes into second-half stoppage time of their second contest, allowing Portugal to steal a draw. Needing only a point to guarantee passage to the knockout stage, the U.S. fell to Germany, 1-0, but managed to advance due to goal differential.
Klinsmann and the Yanks would once again have a fleeting moment in the sun.
The U.S. was battered by a world-class Belgium squad – of the 14 players to play for Belgium that night, 11 are currently playing in the English Premier League, compared to two for the United States. Despite being overmatched, the Yanks pushed the Red Devils to extra time, before finally falling, 2-1, in the Round of 16.
In that match, Belgium outshot the U.S. 38-14. Goalkeeper Tim Howard set a World Cup record with 16 saves.
And the Yanks still almost won.
Hope had returned. Howard was an internet sensation, Klinsmann was talking about a semifinal appearance in the 2018 World Cup, and fans were truly believing in the USMNT.
Results since the summer in Brazil, however, have been sorely lacking.
Friendly matches immediately following the World Cup were anything but friendly. The USMNT won only two of their next nine matches, including a 4-1 blowout loss to Ireland and a 3-2 defeat in Denmark.
The U.S. returned to tournament play in July 2015, when it hosted the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Americans had reached the Gold Cup final in five consecutive iterations of the competition, winning three. But after trouncing hapless Cuba in the quarterfinals, the Yanks were outplayed by lesser competition in back-to-back contests, crashing to a fourth-place finish, their worst since 2000.
Klinsmann’s team has continued its inconsistent results since the failure in last year’s Gold Cup, extending a trend that will turn five years old next month.
The Yanks were dominated by Brazil in a 4-1 defeat in Foxborough, Mass., shortly after the Gold Cup. In their next match, the Confederations Cup playoff, the Americans allowed two extra-time goals in a 3-2 defeat to Mexico.
After a four-match unbeaten streak, the USMNT lost 2-0 to Guatemala in 2018 World Cup qualifying. It was the team’s first-ever loss to Guatemala, and put the United States in danger of missing the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for the first time in a generation.
Inconsistency is not limited to on-field results. While roster churn is to be expected, especially with a domestic season that does not match its European counterparts, Klinsmann has made many puzzling roster decisions. None is more infamous than the decision Klinsmann called “the toughest decision in my coaching career.”
Wondolowski has proven to be one of Klinsmann’s favorite selections, but the reasons behind his continued inclusion are largely unclear. The San Jose Earthquakes striker has one goal for his country over the past 12 months, and hasn’t scored in a competitive international match since tallying against Cuba during the 2013 Gold Cup. Wondo played exactly three regular-time minutes during the 2014 World Cup group stage, yet was counted on to break the deadlock with the Belgians, when he was brought on in the 72nd minute of a match tied at zero.
More recently, Klinsmann elevated Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan to the top of the depth chart, taking the gloves away from Tim Howard for the first time in over a decade. Guzan had a miserable campaign at Villa, providing little resistance to opposing attacks before and after being temporarily benched in January.
Defensive stability has been a significant problem for Klinsmann, despite a player pool full of options. Central defender Geoff Cameron and fullback DeAndre Yedlin combined for 53 English Premier League appearances this season, while fullback Fabian Johnson and central defender John Brooks had standout seasons in the German Bundesliga. A back line featuring Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks and Johnson seems the best option, yet Klinsmann continues to tinker with his defensive starters, often leaving at least one of the four aforementioned defenders on the bench.
A maelstrom is forming around Klinsmann and the Americans. It will come to a head this weekend, when the United States hosts the Copa America Centenario. The eyes of the soccer world will be on the 100th-anniversary event, which will feature the best footballing nations in the Western Hemisphere. While the United States can’t be mentioned in the same breath as Brazil, Argentina, or defending-champion Chile, the world’s attention will be on Klinsmann’s squad.
This tournament is the very definition of a make-or-break competition for Klinsmann and the Yanks.
The Americans must advance to the knockout stage. Backing into the last eight isn't going to be good enough - Klinsmann must lead the United States to a strong group showing worthy of advancement into the knockout rounds.
Another poor showing on American soil should cost Klinsmann his job. The German coach has had myriad chances to prove his direction is the correct one, and another home embarrassment should spell the end of Klinsmann as American coach.
Success in this month’s competition may prove another false dawn, but it may also prove to be the spark the Americans need to truly believe in Klinsmann's vision.
The Copa American Centenario concludes June 26 at MetLife Stadium. The next few American matches will tell us all we need to know about the future of the U.S. men's national team and its head coach.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
The Online Jargon has been running mock drafts for a few years now, but the highly touted quarterback prospects don't find a ton of praise on these pages. In fact, five quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round were not included in that year's Online Jargon mock. Three of those five men - Brandon Weeden, E.J. Manuel and Johnny Manziel - have proven to be categorical failures, while the jury is still out on Ryan Tannehill.
The fifth? Cam Newton. You can't win 'em all.
This time around, the two guys likely to be picked first and second will appear in the first round. However, one of the two will be on this virtual board a little longer than he will when the real show kicks off Thursday night.
As usual, these are the picks I would make if I were running the draft of each team, not who I think will be taken. There will certainly be trades, but trying to predict them is a guarantee for failure.
Let's get to the picks.
1. Los Angeles (via Tennessee) - Jared Goff (QB, California)
Los Angeles didn't trade up 14 spots in the draft order to pick someone other than Jared Goff or Carson Wentz. Jalen Ramsey deserves consideration with the top pick, but the Rams need to invest under center after giving up a small fortune in the aforementioned trade. Goff is a top-10 talent, but will need time to improve his decision-making skills and inconsistent accuracy. The Rams would do well to add receiver depth later in the draft to help Goff during his rookie campaign.
2. Philadelphia (via Cleveland) - Laremy Tunsil (OT, Ole Miss)
Hours after Philadelphia made the trade to move up to no. 2, Eagles GM Howie Roseman confirmed the team would use its first-round pick on a quarterback. Roseman may want to reconsider. Jared Goff is the only quarterback prospect in this draft worthy of a top-10 pick, and even that may be generous in Goff's favor. There is little doubt Laremy Tunsil is worthy of a top selection, however. Philly's current left tackle, Jason Peters, is 34 years old and struggles with injuries. Tunsil is capable of stepping in as the Day One starter on the left side.
3. San Diego - Jalen Ramsey (DB, Florida State)
Losing defensive stalwart Eric Weddle was never going to be easy, but drafting the best defensive back prospect in the class of 2016 will help soften the blow. Ramsey is a dominant force in the secondary, and can play either safety or cornerback. Ramsey projects directly into San Diego's starting lineup at free safety, but his versatility could make Ramsey the eventual replacement for 30-year-old Brandon Flowers at cornerback.
4. Dallas - Joey Bosa (DE, Ohio State)
Few non-quarterbacks enter a draft cycle with as much name recognition as Joey Bosa. A former Ohio State standout, Bosa was in the conversation for the no. 1 overall pick, as well as numerous national accolades, leading into the 2015 collegiate season. Bosa's numbers didn't jump off the page, but his talent shines in places other than the stat sheet. Bosa does not have the elite pass-rushing speed of a Von Miller, but Bosa's overall skill set and high upside will give the Cowboys some much-needed help on the defensive line.
5. Jacksonville - Myles Jack (OLB, UCLA)
The type of versatility Myles Jack showed at UCLA is not something we often see in the college game. Although that versatility will likely be reigned in when Jack enters the NFL, Jack's aggression and elite-level speed will complement his ability as a flat-out playmaker. If concerns over Jack's meniscus injury are overblown (as some recent reports suggest) the Jaguars will have added another edge threat to their growing arsenal of front-seven weapons.
Seeing the Ravens hit the clock this early in the draft is a rare occurrence, and Ozzie Newsome would do well to make this pick count. At 6'7" and 291 pounds, DeForest Buckner has been compared by multiple scouts to Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell. Some scouts, in fact, consider Buckner a more polished prospect than Campbell was coming out of Miami in 2008. If he can meet those high expectations, Buckner could be the leader of Baltimore's defensive line for years to come.
7. San Francisco - Vernon Hargreaves (CB, Florida)
All of the focus in San Francisco has been on the Colin Kaepernick saga. Kaepernick may end up being a wonderful fit for Chip Kelly's offensive scheme, and neither Jared Goff nor Carson Wentz is the Marcus Mariota-type signal caller Kelly covets. San Francisco's cornerback situation is dire, as Tramaine Brock is the best cover man the Niners have on the roster. Hargreaves would represent an immediate upgrade, likely starting right away, while also providing San Francisco's secondary some much-needed toughness.
8. Cleveland (via Philadelphia) - Ronnie Stanley (OT, Notre Dame)
Cleveland's new emphasis on analytics should prevent the Browns from continuing the myriad mistakes they've made on players like Barkevious Mingo, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel. Ronnie Stanley isn't a sexy pick, but his mechanics and technique are as good as top tackle prospect Laremy Tunsil. Stanley is good enough to play left tackle, but can start on the right side until Joe Thomas' time in Cleveland comes to an end.
9. Tampa Bay - Shaq Lawson (DE, Clemson)
Tampa's brass would have loved to see Vernon Hargreaves or Ronnie Stanley fall to no. 9, as both players would fill a glaring need. Shaq Lawson is a bit of a reach, but the Bucs need help in the front seven as well. Lawson won't set the world on fire with his pass-rushing skill set, but he's an edge-setter and a nightmare in run defense. Tampa Bay should certainly look to use a second-day pick on a defensive back, as their secondary is in shambles.
10. NY Giants - Ezekiel Elliott (RB, Ohio State)
Four teams drafting ahead of New York could stand to add Ezekiel Elliott. Luckily for the Giants, each of those four teams have bigger needs elsewhere. Few teams need a bell cow running back as badly as New York, and they'll add the only back capable of being taken in the first round. Elliott stormed onto the scene during Ohio State's 2014 national title run, and continued his dominance last season. Elliott's physical style will be a welcome addition in the Big Apple.
11. Chicago - Leonard Floyd (OLB. Georgia)
The Bears need help across the defense, but an effective pass rush can help mask some other shortcomings. Leonard Floyd has the potential to be one of the most dangerous pass-rushers in the 2016 class. Floyd will need to add some weight to his slightly undersized frame, but his top-notch range and closing speed dovetail nicely with his above-average skills as a pass rusher.
12. New Orleans - A'Shawn Robinson (DT, Alabama)
New Orleans' defense was bad enough in 2015 to set NFL records for ineptitude. It goes without saying that the 12th overall selection must be used to improve the Saints' moribund defensive unit. A'Shawn Robinson looks every bit the part of a franchise-caliber defensive tackle, but his skill set requires a little work. That didn't prevent Robinson from tearing through opposing offenses at Alabama, however, and likely won't hold him back in the pros.
13. Miami (via Philadelphia) - Mackensie Alexander (CB, Clemson)
Miami sorely needed a starting cornerback prior to the departure of Brent Grimes. Now that Grimes is in Tampa, the Dolphins absolutely must address the position with multiple picks this weekend. Mackensie Alexander is criticized because he's a little shorter than the ideal corner, but his skills in man coverage, as well as his outsize confidence, would be a welcome addition to Miami's defensive backfield.
14. Oakland - Reggie Ragland (ILB, Alabama)
15. Tennessee (via Los Angeles) - Jack Conklin (OT, Michigan State)
This pick is just as much about last year's first-round selection as anything. The Titans look to have found a keeper in Marcus Mariota, but they need to keep their young quarterback upright. Taylor Lewan gives Tennessee one starter at tackle, and Jack Conklin can give the Titans another. Conklin isn't flashy, but his above-average technique and top-flight mean streak will fit well on Russ Grimm's offensive line.
16. Detroit - Taylor Decker (OT, Ohio State)
As usual, Detroit has a personnel problem. Do the Lions roll the dice on a player like Noah Spence and hope the offensive line comes together, or do they draft a tackle and try to find defensive help in the second or third round? The better move is usually the safer one, and the safer pick is Taylor Decker. Spence has character flags aplenty, and there is usually defensive talent to be had on the draft's second and third days. Decker projects as a right tackle in the pros, and while spending the 16th overall pick on a right tackle may be a bit of a stretch, the Lions need all the help they can get to prevent any further punishment being inflicted upon Matthew Stafford.
17. Atlanta - Darron Lee (OLB, Ohio State)
Adding Courtney Upshaw is an upgrade to Atlanta's subpar linebacker corps, but Upshaw was never much of a pass-rusher in Baltimore. Darron Lee is another athletic playmaker on the outside who needs to add a bit of bulk to meet his true potential. The Falcons are in dire need for a difference-maker at the second level, so Lee should start right away as a rookie. The story of Lee's career will be defined by his ability to adapt to the physical rigors of the NFL.
18. Indianapolis - Noah Spence (OLB, Eastern Kentucky)
Once upon a time, Darron Lee and Noah Spence played on the same team. What a duo those two could have been. Spence found himself on the wrong end of the law while at Ohio State, leading to his transfer to Eastern Kentucky. Spence has reportedly focused heavily on changing his off-field behavior while at EKU, going so far as to write each of the 32 NFL franchises to further explain the changes he's made. Spence's on-field skills are undeniable, and would be a welcome addition to Indy's underwhelming defense.
19. Buffalo - Robert Nkemdiche (DL, Ole Miss)
Robert Nkemdiche's off-the-field antics are a little fresher in scouts' minds, as the former Ole Miss standout fell from a fourth-floor hotel window near the end of last season. That isn't the only question mark for Nkemdiche, who has all the talent in the world but failed to produce at times in college. Bills coach Rex Ryan has a way of making the most of out of players like Nkemdiche, and there is no reason to believe Ryan won't do it again.
20. NY Jets - Carson Wentz (QB, North Dakota State)
This pick comes with a significant caveat: The Jets must re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick. Carson Wentz simply isn't capable of starting as a rookie, and Wentz's NFL success will rely heavily on his team's patience. Wentz has all the mental and physical tools a team could desire, but his general lack of experience leaves the former North Dakota State quarterback with development needs. Wentz can sit for a year or two behind Fitzpatrick, learning the nuances of the game while playing understudy to one of the more intelligent QBs in the NFL.
21. Washington - Sheldon Rankins (DT, Louisville)
Nobody in Washington should be excited about the prospect of starting Kedric Golston at defensive tackle in 2016. Sheldon Rankins would provide a different story. Rankins doesn't have the prototypical size for a defensive tackle, but his outstanding strength, agility and skill set outweigh any perceived issues Rankins' frame may present. Rankins is likely worthy of a higher selection, but Washington would be more than happy to add the former Louisville product to fill a position of significant need.
22. Houston - Will Fuller (WR, Notre Dame)
Will Fuller's draft stock rose significantly over the past month or so, as scouts must have finally realized the type of pro Fuller can become. Fuller is a slightly taller version of Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith - a tough, quick, play-making wideout who plays bigger than his height and weight would normally dictate. Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins would give newly minted Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler plenty of help in Osweiler's first season as a starter.
23. Minnesota - Laquon Treadwell (WR, Ole Miss)
Critics will point out Treadwell's less-than-ideal speed (he ran a 4.63 40 at the combine) but plenty of quality wideouts ran average times at the Underwear Olympics. Treadwell has all the talent in the world to be the latest example, and the Vikings would be happy to reap the benefits. Minnesota found a gem in Stefon Diggs, but they must provide help to Diggs and third-year starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
24. Cincinnati - Josh Doctson (WR, TCU)
Cincinnati's cavalier attitude toward re-signing free agents bit the reigning AFC North champions hard this offseason, as wideouts Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu both left via free agency. That leaves A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert ... and not really anyone else. Josh Doctson produced like crazy at TCU, standing out of the crowd in a conference known for high-octane offenses. Expectations are tempered for the former Horned Frogs wideout, but the Bengals don't need Doctson to be their no. 1 receiver.
25. Pittsburgh - Jarran Reed (DT, Alabama)
Cam Thomas really isn't moving the needle as Pittsburgh's starting nose tackle. Jarran Reed, however, is quite familiar with moving the needle from the interior. Reed paired with fellow first-rounder A'Shawn Robinson to terrorize fellow SEC defenses for the reigning national champions, and Reed could be the type of player to help the Steelers establish their front seven. Reed isn't much of a pass-rushing threat, but he'll immediately upgrade Pittsburgh's run defense.
26. Seattle - Ryan Kelly (C, Alabama)
Seattle is largely allergic to drafting in the first round, but with the state of their offensive line as it is, the Seahawks need to take advantage of their time on the clock. Ryan Kelly was a three-year starter at Alabama, leading an offense that closely resembles many of the schemes found in the NFL. Drafting a center isn't a sexy pick, but since trading Max Unger, Seattle's offensive line has been on a sharp downward trajectory.
27. Green Bay - Andrew Billings (NT, Baylor)
B.J. Raji's de-facto retirement is a bit of addition by subtraction, but it still leaves a vacancy in the middle of Green Bay's defense. Andrew Billings is the best true nose tackle in this draft, and would fit well as the anchor of Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. Billings is only 20, but already has pro-ready strength and an unusual knack for making plays from the 0-technique.
Keep an eye out for Notre Dame inside linebacker Jaylon Smith. Packers GM Ted Thompson often utilizes the "best player available" strategy, and Smith certainly fits the bill, as well as filling a massive need at inside linebacker. Smith likely will not play in 2016, but if Thompson can be patient (and history indicates he can) Smith would be an interesting fit for the Packers.
28. Kansas City - Eli Apple (CB, Ohio State)
Kansas City rolled the dice by drafting Marcus Peters last year, and that pick paid immediate dividends. Doubling down at the corner position is not a bad idea, especially following the departure of Sean Smith. Eli Apple is a big, physical corner who is one of the better man coverage backs in the draft. Apple's physicality may get him in trouble, especially as he works through his growing pains as a rookie. The same criticism was levied against Peters coming into last year's draft, however, and things turned out just fine for Peters and the Chiefs.
29. Arizona - Kevin Dodd (DE, Clemson)
At first glance, the Cardinals don't appear to need much help up front. Father Time, however, will catch up with Arizona's front seven faster than anyone in the desert would like. Dodd managed to fly a bit under the radar at Clemson, thanks to the presence of teammate, and fellow first-round prospect, Shaq Lawson, but Dodd is hardly lacking in talent. Dodd is still a little raw, but Arizona's experienced defense is the perfect place for Dodd to hone his exceptional skillset.
30. Carolina - Karl Joseph (S, West Virginia)
Carolina would love to see someone like Jack Conklin or Taylor Decker slide down the board, but that doesn't seem likely. Karl Joseph, a bruising safety who has gained significant steam over the past few weeks, would give Carolina's secondary the physicality it has lacked in recent years. The Panthers must address their offensive line early and often, but adding a thumper like Joseph will provide an equivalent boost to Carolina's defensive backfield.
31. Denver - Cody Whitehair (OG, Kansas State)
John Elway is smart. Since he's smart enough to build a Super Bowl champion, he should know better than to draft someone like Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg or Connor Cook with the final pick in the first round. Max Garcia represents a void at guard, one that could be filled quite adequately by Cody Whitehair, the draft's top guard prospect. Denver's quarterback situation isn't going to be pretty this year, so putting together an above-average offensive line is all the more imperative. Whitehair will help Elway and the Broncos do just that.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
Barely two months from wrapping up a dominant 2014-15 Barclays Premier League title season, Chelsea took the field for the International Champions Cup. The opening match against New York Red Bulls was sure to be a tune-up for the continued success of west London's top side.
Nobody bothered telling the Red Bulls. Despite playing a side full of MLS also-rans, New York scored four second-half goals en route to a 4-2 victory over the defending English champions.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho dismissed the loss, standing defiant despite watching his Blues fall to a team of players that couldn't crack an MLS starting lineup.
"You are speaking with the manager of the best team in England," Mourinho said after the match. "We don't have fragilities."
"We play ten times against Red Bulls, we win nine," Mourinho continued. "The second half was a disaster, but I'm not worried."
Maybe he should have been.
Chelsea would not earn an outright victory until Aug. 23. The Blues managed exhibition victories over Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona in penalties, but dropped three of their next four contests.
The results haven't improved. Chelsea have record just five victories in 16 matches across all competitions this season. The Blues have lost twice as much, in two months, as they did all of last season.
Once upon a time, Stamford Bridge was the definition of a fortress. Chelsea lost once in Mourinho's first 99 home matches. They've lost three times at Stamford Bridge already this year.
No defending Premier League champion has ever started as poorly as Chelsea have this year. In fact, the 11 points Chelsea earned through 10 games was the team's worst start ever in the Premiership. It only got worse when Chelsea suffered a 3-1 home loss to Liverpool Saturday afternoon.
Poor results aren't the only problem facing one of Europe's best club teams. Eden Hazard, the reigning FWA Footballer of the Year and PFA Players' Player of the Year, has been unable to make an impact so far. There are rumblings of tension between Hazard and Mourinho, which have led to rumors of a transfer bid from Spanish giants Real Madrid.
Cesc Fabregas, who was sublime throughout last season's title-winning campaign, has been invisible on offense and a liability on defense. Diego Costa has lost his finishing boots. John Terry and Gary Cahill have been awful in central defense. Worst of all may be Nemanja Matic, who looked like the best defensive midfielder in the world last season. Matic has been a wreck throughout the campaign, culminating in his deplorable pair of first-half yellow cards in Chelsea's Oct. 24 loss to West Ham.
Players are certainly responsible for poor performance, but it is the manager's responsibility to correct poor form and rotate the squad as needed. Mourinho has done neither.
Instead, the self-proclaimed "Special One" has made a habit out of blaming officials, bad luck, and the English Football Association.
Mourinho's temperamental immaturity reached its zenith Saturday afternoon, when Chelsea's manager responded to post-match questions with, "I have nothing to say."
Team owner Roman Abramovich may share Mourinho's sentiment come Sunday. Abramovich has shown his willingness to make managerial changes, sacking five different managers in his 12 years as Chelsea owner.
Abramovich issued his first-ever vote of confidence in early-October, stating his faith in Mourinho's ability to reverse Chelsea's downward spiral. That vote of confidence came before Chelsea dropped three straight contests, allowing six goals in that span. That vote of confidence came before Mourinho was sent off at halftime of Chelsea's 2-1 loss to West Ham, before Mourinho was punished by the FA for repeated unsportsmanlike behavior.
Jose Mourinho is a smart man, and despite what he tells the media, Mourinho likely knows the ice beneath his feet is growing thinner by the day. The myriad puzzle pieces that make up Chelsea's historic fall from grace put together a picture of organizational disarray, and the blame for that loss of control lies squarely at the feet of the manager.
Speculation on Mourinho's future will continue until the Portuguese leaves SW6 for the second time in his career. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Mourinho will depart, it is hard to imagine Mourinho patrolling the touch line when Chelsea open the 2016-17 season next August.
Should a caretaker be needed, another familiar face is reportedly ready to head to west London. When asked if he would be interested in stepping in for a departed Mourinho, Guus Hiddink did nothing to silence the rumor mill.
"Top-class football is always attractive," Hiddink, who served as Chelsea's caretaker manager in 2009, told Voetbal International. "We'll see. We just have to wait now."
Hiddink is a great candidate to stop the bleeding Mourinho is incapable of curtailing. Hiddink won the FA Cup in his first run as Chelsea caretaker, and can hold court until next summer, when the biggest fish in European football management may hit the open market.
Abramovich must do whatever is necessary to bring Guardiola to England. Abramovich wants Chelsea to be a global power, mentioned in the same breath as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United.
Guardiola is the man to do that. In his six full seasons with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Guardiola has never finished worse than second in the league, while winning three domestic cups and two Champions League titles.
Abramovich has the money to purchase virtually any player on the planet. He needs the right manager to make Chelsea a European super club.
Pep Guardiola is that man. Regardless of when Mourinho makes his inevitable departure from Stamford Bridge, Guardiola should be the man to permanently replace the so-called Special One.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
I've always been fascinated with statistics, because they always tell the real story. Stats aren't affected by media bias, and they can't be persuaded. They are an unfettered window into a league whose narrative is painted in myriad shades by countless so-called experts.
The 2015 season is finally old enough for the stats to mean something. Peyton Manning's 77.3 quarterback rating is incredibly relevant, despite Denver's undefeated record. Likewise, Andy Dalton's 115.6 quarterback rating, a mark higher than everyone not named Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, is also incredibly relevant.
Manning, Dalton, Brady and Rodgers will all try to remain undefeated this week. Cam Newton will join that quartet in working to ensure Matt Ryan's Falcons will be the only team to fall from the ranks of the unbeaten this week.
Let's get to the picks.
Atlanta (5-0) over New Orleans (1-4)
Line: Atlanta -3.5
Spread pick: Atlanta
Turnovers will submarine your efforts to win, no matter how good or bad your record. That is what happened Thursday to the previously undefeated Falcons, who were hurt by three poorly timed turnovers.
Cincinnati (5-0) over Buffalo (3-2)
Line: Cincinnati -2.5
Spread pick: Cincinnati
The absence of Tyrod Taylor, who currently ranks seventh in the league in quarterback rating, will hurt a Bills offense already hindered by injuries to running backs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams. The Bengals, meanwhile, spent the last four weeks beating teams that finished last season with at least nine victories. This one won't be a beauty, but the Bengals will leave upstate New York with their undefeated record intact.
Chicago (2-3) over Detroit (0-5)
Line: Detroit -2.5
Spread pick: Chicago
Jay Cutler is often considered one of the league's most reckless quarterbacks, while Matthew Stafford is considered a gunslinger who makes the extra play for his team. But what do the stats say?
Cutler: 86 starts, 46-40 record, 61.4 pct. completion percentage, 232.7 yards per game, 135 touchdowns, 96 interceptions, 84.3 QB rating.
Stafford: 82 starts, 35-47 record, 59.9 pct. completion percentage, 279.5 yards per game, 137 touchdowns, 93 interceptions, 83.1 QB rating.
Cutler has a better record and completion percentage than Stafford, and has also won in the postseason. Cutler has fewer passing yards than Stafford, but that is due, in large part, to the presence of perennial Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte.
Despite very different reputations, Cutler and Stafford are very similar players. The difference, however, is Cutler's record as a starter. It will be Cutler and the Bears who walk out with the victory.
Denver (5-0) over Cleveland (2-3)
Line: Denver -4.5
Spread pick: Denver
It's hard to believe, but the numbers don't lie: Peyton Manning is leading the NFL's least-effective offense. Denver rates 32nd in offensive DVOA and 30th in total yards per game. The Broncos defense still comfortably leads the league in defensive DVOA and total yards allowed per game. Cleveland's offense has been surprisingly competent in recent weeks, but new-found competence isn't going to be enough to beat the league's best defense.
Tennessee (1-3) over Miami (1-3)
Line: Tennessee -2.5
Spread pick: Tennessee
The numbers aren't kind to Miami. The 'Fins rank near the bottom of the league in multiple offensive and defensive categories, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill 31st in quarterback rating in a year he was supposed to join the league's upper echelon of signal callers. Rookie Marcus Mariota has been better than expected early on, leading a once-moribund offense to a certain modicum of success. A solid defense, paired with Mariota's play, will lead the Titans to victory.
Minnesota (2-2) over Kansas City (1-4)
Line: Minnesota -3.5
Spread pick: Minnesota
If you know what happened to the Chiefs' defense, you may want to let Andy Reid know. Kansas City sported one of the league's best defenses last season, but that same unit has been abysmal this year. The Chiefs are average against the run, but Adrian Peterson is rested and ready to continue his recent run of success.
New York Jets (3-1) over Washington (2-3)
Line: New York -5.5
Spread pick: New York
Washington's defense has been anything but impressive this year. New York's elite defense is rested and ready to get back to action. Kirk Cousins is one of the most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the league, and New York's offense will be all too eager to take advantage of Cousins' inevitable mistakes.
Line: Arizona -3.5
Spread pick: Arizona
Michael Vick is starting to get a better feel for the Steelers offense, but his very low ceiling is going to hold Pittsburgh back in a game in which they'll need to score plenty of points. Arizona leads the league in points per game, and Carson Palmer's 13 touchdown passes are the league's top mark.
Jacksonville (1-4) over Houston (1-4)
Line: Houston -0.5
Spread pick: Jacksonville
J.J. Watt may miss Sunday's game due to illness, which should make Texans fans feel queasy. Watt is once again the lone bright spot on a dim season in Houston. Blake Bortles and the Jags have shown improvement this season, currently ranked 18th in offensive DVOA. Houston's defense ranks 26th in defensive DVOA with Watt on the field, and if the league's best defensive player spends Sunday afternoon on the sideline, the Jags may cruise.
Seattle (2-3) over Carolina (4-0)
Line: Seattle -6.5
Spread pick: Seattle
The Seahawks have allowed 10 points in two home games this season. Carolina may be undefeated, but the Panthers don't have the offensive firepower to overcome Seattle's defense at CenturyLink Field.
Green Bay (5-0) over San Diego (2-3)
Line: Green Bay -9.5
Spread pick: San Diego
The Packers have the league's best DVOA pass defense, but the quarterbacks they've faced ranked 17th, fourth, 15th, 22nd and 25th in my preseason quarterback power ranking. The outlier, Russell Wilson, has never been known to put up big passing numbers. Up next is Philip Rivers, who is tied for second in passing yards per game, fifth in completion percentage, and sixth in quarterback rating. Green Bay's defense will bend, but San Diego's 22nd-ranked defense won't do enough to earn the upset victory.
Baltimore (1-4) over San Francisco (1-4)
Line: Baltimore -2.5
Spread pick: Baltimore
Neither team's offense has impressed this season. At least Baltimore has a good reason. The Ravens have once again been decimated by injuries this season, with receivers Steve Smith, Sr., Breshad Perriman and Michael Campanaro, as well as tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Dennis Pitta, already missing time this year. Colin Kaepernick has been a disaster this year, failing to utilize Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, and new arrival Torrey Smith, leading San Francisco to the bottom of the league in pass offense.
New England (4-0) over Indianapolis (3-2)
Line: New England -7.5
Spread pick: New England
There isn't evidence to make an unbiased outsider believe the Patriots can't walk into Lucas Oil Stadium and control the Colts. Tom Brady has been as good as ever, Dion Lewis has been a revelation, and New England's defense ranks in the top 10 pass DVOA and points allowed per game. Andrew Luck may play in this game, but he'll need help from Indy's other key players to keep this one close.
Philadelphia (2-3) over New York Giants (3-2)
Line: Philadelphia -3.5
Spread pick: Philadelphia
The Giants need Odell Beckham, Jr., to be at 100 percent. Beckham is currently listed as questionable for Monday night's divisional tilt thanks to a hamstring injury suffered last week. Hamstring injuries tend to linger, and even if Beckham suits up this week, you have to wonder if he'll be healthy enough to be the game-breaker the Giants need him to be.
Last week: 8-6
Last week v. spread: 8-6
Season record: 47-30
Season record v. spread: 40-37
Sunday, October 11, 2015
The league's best stake their claim to a spot among the elite by the time October rolls around. Teams still struggling through a 60-minute contest at this point of the season will likely continue to do so until the regular season comes to a close. Teams controlling each game and racking up a consistent stream of victories will also look to continue their positive trends.
Games in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Kansas City feature teams looking to shake off poor starts against opponents who were expected to bring up the rear of the league. A number of the league's remaining unbeatens will also face tests in their quest to remain undefeated.
Let's get to the picks.
Houston (1-3) over Indianapolis (2-2)
Line: Indianapolis -2.5
Spread pick: Houston
Thursday night's game was a rare instance when the Texans had an advantage, however slight, at quarterback. Brian Hoyer outplayed Colts backup Matt Hasselbeck, but Houston's running game let down the offense. This game was a major opportunity for the Texans, and they blew it. Bill O'Brien needs to right the ship in a hurry.
Atlanta (4-0) over Washington (2-2)
Line: Atlanta -7.5
Spread pick: Washington
Washington has been surprisingly competent this season, tallying early-season victories over the Rams and Eagles. Competent, however, won't be enough to knock off Atlanta's high-flying offense. Julio Jones is coming off his least productive game of the year, and while he is banged up, Jones will be happy to take advantage of a pedestrian Washington secondary.
Buffalo (2-2) over Tennessee (1-2)
Line: Buffalo -2.5
Spread pick: Buffalo
In what may be the surprise of the season, Buffalo's offense ranks higher in DVOA than its defense. Led by Tyrod Taylor and Karlos Williams, the Bills have already scored 30 or more points twice, while Taylor has broken the 270-yard passing mark in back-to-back contests. Rex Ryan's defense will make life difficult for rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, he;ping the Bills leave Nashville with the victory.
Kansas City (1-3) over Chicago (1-3)
Line: Kansas City -9.5
Spread pick: Chicago
2015 hasn't been kind to the Chiefs. Alex Smith is taking sacks at a near-record pace, and the once-powerful defense has come crashing to earth. The proper salve may very well be a game with the Bears, who have struggled more than the Chiefs this year. Chicago's loaded coaching staff has proven ineffective, as the Bears rank 27th in offensive DVOA and 31st in defensive DVOA.
Seattle (2-2) over Cincinnati (4-0)
Line: Cincinnati -1.5
Spread pick: Seattle
We can't possibly live in a world where Andy Dalton outduels the Seahawks defense. Regardless of the locale, Cincinnati has faced only one defense that ranks in the top half of the league in DVOA, and the Ravens have one of the sketchier secondaries in the league. Seattle, in all likelihood, has the best. Dalton simply doesn't have the talent to overcome the Legion of Boom.
Baltimore (1-3) over Cleveland (1-3)
Line: Baltimore -6.5
Spread pick: Cleveland
The Ravens have run out of receivers. Cleveland has no quarterback. Sunday won't be pretty, but Baltimore's running game, which came back to life last week in Pittsburgh, will control the game and allow the Ravens to once again beat the Browns in Baltimore.
Line: Green Bay -9.5
Spread pick: St. Louis
Green Bay hasn't really been challenged this season, and St. Louis' pedestrian offense - currently ranked 21st in DVOA - won't be the first to challenge the green and gold. Aaron Rodgers and company may have some problems with St. Louis' front four, but the Rams' secondary isn't up to the task of shutting down one of the league's best offenses.
Philadelphia (1-3) over New Orleans (1-3)
Line: Philadelphia -5.5
Spread pick: Philadelphia
The Saints need to prove their once-powerful offense hasn't been neutered. Through three games, Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense has looked anything but is normal self. The Eagles haven't been impressive, either, but Philly will do enough Sunday to earn a much-needed victory.
Jacksonville (1-3) over Tampa Bay (1-3)
Line: Tampa Bay -2.5
Spread pick: Jacksonville
Both teams have been average on defense, but the Buccaneers have been downright deplorable on offense. Jameis Winston has done little to improve Tampa Bay's struggling offense, and the Bucs could certainly struggle against a Jaguars defense that makes a habit out of getting after opposing quarterbacks.
Arizona (3-1) over Detroit (0-4)
Line: Arizona -2.5
Spread pick: Arizona
Detroit rode one of the league's best defenses to a 10-6 record last season. With one of the league's worst units in 2015, it's no surprise to see the Lions struggling mightily through four games. Despite suffering their first loss of the season last week, the Cardinals rank in the top five of both offensive and defensive DVOA. The Cardinals should cruise to their fourth victory of the season Sunday afternoon.
New England (3-0) over Dallas (2-2)
Line: New England -9.5
Spread pick: New England
The Cowboys have been uninspiring all season, becoming even less impressive after injuries to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The Patriots are rested and have looked as good as any team in the league thus far. This game won't be close.
Denver (4-0) over Oakland (2-2)
Line: Denver -5.5
Spread pick: Denver
Peyton Manning's run of dominance may finally be over, but Denver's defense has taken the reigns. The Broncos comfortably rank first in defensive DVOA, while also topping the league in overall yards allowed per game and passing yards allowed per contest. Derek Carr has been solid through Oakland's first four games, but he won't be ready to take down the league's best defense.
New York Giants (2-2) over San Francisco (1-3)
Line: New York -7.5
Spread pick: San Francisco
San Francisco has been one of the league's most impotent squads on offense and defense, ranking in the bottom five in offensive and defensive DVOA. The Giants certainly haven't been impressive thus far in 2015, but they've been competent, and competence is enough to beat San Francisco this season.
San Diego (2-2) over Pittsburgh (2-2)
Line: San Diego -3.5
Spread pick: San Diego
Last week's loss to Baltimore proved that the Steelers are a completely different team without Ben Roethlisberger. Michael Vick may be more comfortable in the Pittsburgh offense this week, but a one-dimensional offense isn't going to be enough to knock off Philip Rivers and the Chargers.
Last week: 10-5
Last week v. spread: 7-8
Season record: 39-24
Season record v. spread: 32-31