This column previews four Week 4 matchups and provides The Professor’s model projection for the game outcomes. This article will cover Thursday Night’s game between Jacksonville and Cincinnati, Houston at Buffalo, Washington at Atlanta, and New Orleans at the New York Giants.
All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
Jacksonville at Cincinnati (CIN -7.5, Total 46.5)
Model Projection: Cincinnati 29.16 – Jacksonville 18.73 (CIN -10.43, Total 47.89)
This week’s Thursday Night Football game features the 2020 and 2021 NFL Draft’s first overall picks, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, a pair of quarterbacks who are operating in vastly different situations.
Cincinnati’s offensive line issues are not going away, but Burrow did an excellent job navigating the pressure against an injury-depleted Pittsburgh defense as he completed 14 of 18 passes with three touchdowns in the win over Pittsburgh. Running back Joe Mixon provides the offense balance and the defense, led by free-agent signee Trey Hendrickson at defensive end and the safety duo of Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, is exceeding all expectations. There is room to grow, but this is the best team Cincinnati has fielded in years.
Two of Burrow’s three touchdowns last week went to rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who plays with a swagger that suggests he could play big under the prime-time lights on Thursday Night. Jacksonville had pulled C.J. Henderson from the corner rotation before their Week Three game, but Henderson’s trade to Carolina makes it certain that either Shaquill Griffin, who has had a rough start to his Jacksonville tenure, or Tyson Campbell, a rookie second-rounder, will be tasked with covering Chase. It’s unlikely either is up to it.
The Jacksonville defense has struggled to stop opponents in any situation, which makes it more problematic that their quarterback continues to turn the ball over and put them on short fields. Trevor Lawrence has shown big-time arm strength and a willingness to turn it loose but continues to make mistakes with ball placement, staring down receivers, and general decision-making that has prevented him from playing winning football. Running back James Robinson is coming off an outstanding performance against Arizona, so perhaps the Jags can keep the score close and the offense balanced, but I’ll bet on Lawrence’s mistakes leading to a blowout until I see something different.
Houston at Buffalo (BUF -16, Total 48)
Model Projection: Buffalo 31.4 – Houston 16.26 (BUF -15.14, Total 47.66)
Buffalo was already a -16.5 favorite before the weekend’s action, but in any other week, quarterback Josh Allen’s performance would have moved the spread by several points. Allen hadn’t quite found his rhythm going into Week Three, but he’s found it now, and the rest of the AFC is on notice.
Allen was back to his MVP-caliber form, extending plays, running the ball, and dropping dimes down the field. There were a few misses, such as the slightly overthrown ball to receiver Stefon Diggs on a post route that could have gone for a fifty-yard score, but there were enough big-time throws to show Allen has his mojo back. The offensive line did relatively well against a talented Washington defensive line that is playing well despite issues in the back end of the defense and running back Zack Moss also had a strong performance.
The offense is better-rounded this season, but Buffalo’s bigger jump has come on defense, where this unit has reestablished their pre-2020 standard. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer had outstanding performances this week, as did linebacker Matt Milano. Cornerback Tre’Davious White ripped a fumble loose from Logan Thomas and the defensive line rotation put consistent pressure on Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, which prevented the Football Team’s offense from establishing any sort of rhythm.
Quarterback Davis Mills is likely to face similar issues as the Texans travel to Buffalo this week. Tre’Davious White is likely to follow Mills’ top receiver, Brandin Cooks, which could be a significant issue given how much Mills has relied on Cooks so far. If White can erase Cooks, Mills will be without his favorite target in a game where Houston’s offensive line will be overmatched by Buffalo’s defensive line rotation. Houston’s defense doesn’t have the talent to slow down Allen, which makes a blowout likely, as indicated by the spread.
Washington at Atlanta (WSH -1.5, Total 47.5)
Model Projection: Atlanta 24.2 – Washington 22.06 (ATL -2.14, Total 46.26)
It’s incredible, given how poorly the overall unit is playing, to see the Washington defensive line continue to stack opponent offensive lines in the run game and pick up pass rush wins. In a vacuum, this talented unit is playing fairly well, but the run stops haven’t mattered because teams throw the ball to make up for them, and the pass rush wins are rarely translating to quarterback pressure because the ball is out or the quarterback is escaping the pocket early. The back end of the defense isn’t making plays on the ball with any sort of consistency, which is wasting the talent upfront. Watching Washington’s defense next to Buffalo’s was striking; the Bills typically rotate eight linemen each week, none of whom plays a particularly high volume of snaps, but while they don’t have Washington’s talent, they are racking up more production because their back end is so much better than Washington’s.
Hindsight shows that Washington’s unit didn’t play an impressive schedule in terms of offensive opponents in 2020, which should have gotten more focus but got lost in the hype around the defensive line. It’s a tough pill to swallow for those who were high on this unit (me included), but an important reminder that one unit doesn’t make a defense, particularly in 2021’s NFL.
Atlanta picked up their first win over the Giants this weekend, but Matt Ryan’s offensive line continued to have issues and it’s difficult to imagine that this group will be able to consistently block Washington’s line. It will be on Ryan and head coach Arthur Smith to design a plan that gets the ball out quickly; they are likely to continue emphasizing Cordarrelle Patterson’s role, but Atlanta needs to get more players rolling. It should be a priority to get the rookie tight end, Kyle Pitts, the ball; he had a critical play on the game-winning drive when he left Giants safety Jabrill Peppers behind on a corner route but didn’t feel like part of the game plan until he caught a seam route on 3rd and 8 with 11:34 left in the 4th quarter.
Taylor Heinicke was out of rhythm for Washington against Buffalo, with the Football Team’s non-garbage time touchdowns coming on a 73-yard screen pass to Antonio Gibson and a drive that began on Buffalo’s 24 after kicker Dustin Hopkins recovered his own kickoff on a spectacular effort. Heinicke scrambled for a touchdown on that drive and made a handful of nice throws throughout the game, but the offense never established any sort of play-to-play consistency as Buffalo’s defense swarmed them. Atlanta’s defense is not nearly as talented as Buffalo’s, but Heinicke will need to elevate his overall play to get the Washington offense moving against them.
This is not a good Atlanta team, but they are playing a Washington unit with an average defense and a backup quarterback, which is why the model gives them the slight edge at home.
New Orleans at the New York Giants (NO -8, Total 43)
Model Projection: New Orleans 23.04 – New York Giants 18.2, (NO -4.84, Total 41.24)
There were other factors involved, but the returns of cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety/corner C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who both missed Week Two, was a key reason the Saints beat the Patriots last Sunday.
Gardner-Johnson, who plays the slot in the Saints’ preferred nickel package, was consistently in the backfield, helping to put pressure on Patriots quarterback Mac Jones as the rookie signal-caller committed several errors, and Lattimore picked up the third and final interception of Jones on the day. Defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and P.J. Williams had the other interceptions, with Jenkins returning his for a touchdown, on a day where Jones was overwhelmed by the New Orleans front.
While Jones ended up with the negative plays on the stat sheet, New Orleans quarterback Jameis Winston did take his shot at giving the ball to New England. The Saints employed a run-heavy plan and a passing game that featured running back Alvin Kamara and limited Winston to 21 attempts. Given that Winston heaved a wobbly pass into tight coverage in the endzone with a defender wrapped around his leg on one of those attempts, that’s a positive. This is not a great position to throw the ball from, particularly when a sack would have allowed your team to go up 10-0 on a field goal.
While that play ended with Marquez Callaway catching the ball for a touchdown, it’s the type of needlessly risky play that has cost Winston’s teams so many games in the past and a concerning sign for a team with one of the league’s better defenses. The fact that Taysom Hill played a significant amount of quarterback in the “four-minute” offense after New England scored to make it 21-13 is in part a reflection of Hill’s prowess as a runner, but could also indicate a lack of confidence in Winston from the coaching staff.
The New York Giants are a bad football team, particularly on offense, and just allowed another bad team to rally for a comeback win against them at home. New York’s offensive line struggled, particularly with Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler, and will have to face a deeper cast of threats when they play the Saints. The prospects are grim for New York’s offense, but Winston has been known to hand games to lessor teams with his unique style of quarterbacking, such as when the Brett Hundley-quarterbacked Packers beat the Bucs after an absurd fumble by Winston was returned for a touchdown by defensive lineman Dean Lowry. With Jameis at quarterback, anything is possible.
This article previewed four NFL matchups for the coming week. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor on BeerLife Sports!