This column previews four Week 4 matchups and provides The Professor’s model projection for the game outcomes. This article will cover the matchups between Tampa Bay and New England, Arizona and the Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, and Carolina and Dallas.
All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
Tampa Bay at New England (TB -7, Total 49)
Model Projection: Tampa Bay 27.39 – New England 19.59 (TB -7.8, Total 46.98)
It’s been over a year since quarterback Tom Brady’s departure from the New England Patriots. As he prepares to return to Foxboro, many of the same issues that plagued New England in his final season persist.
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones was overwhelmed by the New Orleans defense on Sunday, but his pass-catchers did nothing to bail him out. Jones was off-target on several of the throws his receivers failed to haul in, most notably the pick-six that went off tight end Jonnu Smith’s hands, but there were other times that the rhythm of the offense was disrupted by routine drops. It’s concerning that wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry have failed to elevate their respective games; it would be difficult to argue any of the three has played up to their free-agent contract so far.
The New England defense is close to what it was in Brady’s final season as a Patriot, but it is not an elite unit, and Brady and the Bucs were able to move the ball against much tougher competition in Los Angeles. The score in the Rams game got out of control, but if tight end Rob Gronkowski had been able to catch a corner route on a 3rd and 5 late in the 1st quarter, Tampa would have been taken the early lead, which might have changed the pace of a game that saw both teams move the ball up and down the field. Tampa’s offense should bounce back this week.
Tampa’s bigger concerns are on the defensive side, where coverage breakdowns were a consistent theme on Sunday. The most egregious error came when a half-field safety lost his footing and allowed Rams receiver DeSean Jackson to get behind him for a touchdown, but that was not the only example, as Cooper Kupp was also successful finding open space on wheel routes from bunch concepts.
The Bucs have suffered several injuries in the secondary and communication is likely to be a focus in practice this week. It’s fortunate that even if those issues take more than a week to resolve, it does not appear that Mac Jones and his cast of weapons are likely to take advantage the way Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford did last week. It could be another rough week for the Pats offense; Tampa’s talented defensive front is sure to want to rectify last week’s performance.
Arizona at Los Angeles Rams (LAR -4, Total 55)
Model Projection: Los Angeles Rams 28.92 – Arizona 22.32 (LAR -6.6, Total 51.24)
The Cardinals meet the Rams in a matchup of 3-0 teams that will determine early control of the NFC West. It’s a matchup that features high-profile offenses quarterbacked by Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray, who have both produced outstanding results in markedly different offenses.
Arizona’s offense has a free-wheeling, fast-paced feel to it. Murray, running back Chase Edmonds, and wide receivers Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore all bring explosive acceleration and speed, while receivers DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green provide something of a physical presence in this offense. The scheme doesn’t set up opportunities with play sequences as obviously as the Rams’ offense, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Los Angeles offense has an assassin’s mindset. Their play-sequencing allows them to set up big-time shots off of play-action looks and Stafford has been deadly in those opportunities. The offensive staff has done a fantastic job of creating opportunities for receiver Cooper Kupp at all levels of the field and the line has protected well; the Rams are clicking on all cylinders and the most exciting part might be that they consistently answer the bell when the team needs a score.
This is unlikely to be a defensive struggle, so it may come down to which team has a defender make a game-changing play, and both teams have the stars to do it. Kyler Murray and the Cardinals have made more mistakes in the early going this season, which is why the model favors the Rams, but this should be a tight contest if Murray can protect the ball.
Pittsburgh at Green Bay (GB -6.5, Total 46)
Model Projection: Green Bay 26.25 – Pittsburgh 18.73 (GB -7.52, Total 44.98)
Green Bay is battling through significant injuries, but it hasn’t shown up in the results the last two weeks.
The Packers are missing their two best offensive linemen (David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins) and their best defensive lineman (Za’Darius Smith), but they were still able to pick up a road win over a quality opponent in San Francisco on Sunday Night. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had another brilliant performance, particularly on the thirty-seven-second drive that ended with kicker Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal, and is at the height of his powers as Pittsburgh comes to town for a rematch of the 2011 Super Bowl.
Rodgers is playing at the same level as when the Packers beat the Steelers in that game, but his opponent at quarterback has fallen off precipitously. Ben Roethlisberger’s physical tools are no longer there and Sunday’s performance against Cincinnati extinguished any hope that the offensive line and the run game might improve this season. Rookie running back Najee Harris continues to flash his ability but faces an impossible situation behind an offensive line that arguably has zero competent starters on the roster.
Pittsburgh has talent at receiver and may get Diontae Johnson back this week, but Green Bay’s duo of Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes is on track to become one of the league’s top corner tandems. Alexander is a known commodity, an All-Pro caliber talent who challenges nearly every throw in his direction, but Stokes has shown he’s far more than a player with track speed in the early weeks of his rookie year. The athleticism he showcased in the pre-draft process is evident, but Stokes also possesses outstanding short-area movement skills and the trail skills needed to play sticky coverage. Stokes will need to clean up a few things with hand contact at the catch point to avoid penalties, but they are minor fixes and he’s ahead of where Alexander was three games into his career. The duo should be cemented as one of the league’s top duos by midseason.
The Steelers have been steadily unraveling since their first loss after last year’s 11-0 start and are on a path toward a complete rebuild. Roethlisberger’s final season is shaping up to be anything but a victory lap and the losses are likely to continue piling up in Green Bay.
Carolina at Dallas (DAL -4, Total 50.5)
Model Projection: Dallas 28.34 – Carolina 22.04 (DAL -6.3, Total 50.38)
Carolina lost running back Christian McCaffrey and cornerback Jaycee Horn to injury last week, but after Chuba Hubbard’s performance in relief of McCaffrey and the acquisition of cornerback C.J. Henderson on Monday morning, there was reason to think Carolina was set up for a tightly-contested game with Dallas this week. Once Monday Night happened, that opinion had to be revisited.
After going toe-to-toe with the Buccaneers and Chargers, Dallas blew out Philadelphia in a dominant performance that showed how much this team has improved from last season. The passing game is one of the most dangerous in the league, but it’s the running game that has been more impressive the past two weeks, with starter Ezekiel Elliott and explosive backup Tony Pollard both posting strong numbers as offensive coordinator Kellen Moore does a great job featuring both players.
As importantly, the defense has improved dramatically; Sam Darnold will face an interesting challenge Sunday, as he will be without both McCaffrey and lead receiver D.J. Moore after relying heavily on the duo in the early part of the season. To be clear, Moore will be on the field Sunday, but as Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs will likely be following him, Darnold would be wise to stay away from his top target if at all possible. Diggs has emerged as one of the league’s truly elite corners over the past three weeks; his impressive combination of size, speed, and burst have allowed him to rack up three interceptions in the early part of the season, including last week’s pick-six. Physically, the only corner I see as a decent comparison is the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey; the two are deployed differently in their respective defenses, but in terms of pairing elite movement skills with notable size, these two are in a class of their own. With Diggs covering Moore, Darnold will need to look for rookie pass-catchers Terrace Marshall Jr. and Tommy Tremble and hope that veteran Robby Anderson gets back on track.
Carolina’s defense is also vastly improved this season, so as good as the Cowboys are on offense, the Panthers might give them a surprisingly difficult challenge. The back end is in flux as they incorporate Henderson at cornerback, but this defensive front is as dangerous as any in the league. Edge rushers Brian Burns and Haason Reddick will look to get after Dallas right tackle Terence Steele as La’El Collins’ suspension continues, and linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Jeremey Chinn, who have been two of the league’s best at their respective positions, will look to use their incredible range and instincts to shut down this Dallas run game.
These quality defenses cancel each other out to some degree and the offensive schemers (Kellen Moore in Dallas and Joe Brady in Carolina) are as good as it gets, which leaves the difference in quarterbacks as the key gap between the teams. As good as Sam Darnold has been as a Panther, Dak Prescott is playing MVP-caliber football and has better protection than Darnold, who will have to hope his questionable offensive line can handle Cowboys rookie end Micah Parsons and the rest of the Dallas front. The Panthers are set for a strong season, but my bet is that Darnold is unable to keep up with Prescott in this one and Carolina suffers their first loss of the year.
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!
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.