Picking football games starts with a choice. Do you go with your gut or your brain? Your gut says that Thad Lewis has a chance to throw a pair of touchdown passes. Your brain dials in the statistics, measures out the probability and considers the specific matchups. All that data mixes together in the oozes of your brain where the synapses handle computations. "NO," it screams, "Thad Lewis does not compute. Take the Bengals to beat the nine-point spread."
I got that one right last week, one of only seven games I picked correctly. This week is all gut, except for a handful of games where the logical part of the brain took over. Maybe you can tell where that happened. Maybe that'll scare you away from pinning your financial hopes on my suggestions.
I don't need to read the back cover of a Malcolm Gladwell book to know that we human types rely on a mix of our brains and our guts. And right now, my gut's telling me that these picks are particularly prescient this week. My brain just keeps making cash register noises.
(Friendly reminder, all of these picks are against the spread).
The Peyton Manning as football Jesus narrative advanced a little further this week, thanks to the insane and honest ramblings of Colts owner Jim Irsay. In truth, it was probably more of a shot at Bill Polian than anything else. Indianapolis committed everything to its last franchise quarterback, mangling every other important part of franchise building, from draft picks to free agency, in the process.
Us media types are supposed to view the game and its players from a place of detachment (which makes the constant hero worship from some outlets that much harder to swallow). We can say unsentimental things about the Colts making the right decision to move on from Manning.
The team's owner has to stick to a canned set of a responses about the unending loyalty to a franchise icon, the bittersweet process of moving on, and all that other stuff that we'll write off as bullet points from the team brochure. He has a product to sell, memories to preserve and a fan base to appease. We kind of hate it when owners, coaches and players stick to a script, but sometimes they don't really have a choice.
Denver is obviously the favorite here. And before getting lost in the quarterbacks of the past, present and future, it's worth pointing out that Von Miller returns this week for the Broncos. That makes Andrew Luck's job that much harder, histrionics aside.
It also means that we'll have a Monday filled with more talk about Irsay's comments, most of it in the nonsensical HOT TAKE vein.
The pick: Broncos
Matt Schaub has better statistics than Carson Palmer — a higher completion rate, better QB rating and fewer interceptions. He and Schaub do share a tendency this season to be wildly inconsistent, different players from quarter to quarter and drive to drive. That's a recipe for disaster against a defense like Seattle's.
However, Arizona has precedent on its side. The Cardinals are 7-1 against the spread in their last eight games against Seattle. A few books have moved the spread down to six points. Seattle walked over Arizona, 58-0, the last time these two teams met 10 months ago, the one game out of the last eight the Cardinals didn't cover.
The pick: Seattle
Buccaneers vs. Falcons (-7)
Greg Schiano is going to get fired. But how does it all go down? A surprise meeting with Mark Dominik and the Glazers, piped in via conference call because they have soccer things on their plate, followed by corporate security waiting with a lonely Bankers Box? That's the most likely scenario. But there's a slim chance he'll barricade himself in a bunker underneath Raymond James Stadium (he's been buying lots of bottled water). It ends with flash bang of grenades, rubber bullets and a forced confession on local Tampa television stations.
In the meantime, Schiano's team has a date with the Falcons. Atlanta's had its share of struggles lately, but a bye week and a home game against the Bucs should be more than enough for a brief rebound.
The pick: Falcons
Rams vs. Panthers (-6)
You never know which one of these teams is going to show up. It depends on how competent the offensive coordinator is that week. Mike Shula let Cam Newton throw the ball down the field last week, and balanced the offense with some of those running backs Marty Hurney left him. Brian Schottenheimer's DNA is laced with futility, but the Rams are a better team when taking a heavier dose of MartyBall.
The difference here is the tendency for the Rams defense to bite hard on misdirections. If Shula can fight his better instincts, the Panthers can beat the spread.
The pick: Panthers
Bengals vs. Lions (-3)
Joseph Fauria never wanted to be a hero. All he wanted to do was catch some passes, block a few linebackers and take his empty tin lunch pail home at the end of the day. But a wild gang of hoodlums rolled his family in an alley outside Little Caesar's after a Charles Bronson retrospective at the Film Forum. Scrappy always answers the call.
Cincinnati won its first road game last week, in Buffalo. The Bengals are 0-2-1 against the spread on the road. Detroit has yet to lose a home game or fail to cover the spread at Ford Field this year.
The pick: Lions
At some point, the Jaguars are going to win a game. The ball's going to bounce weird, someone's ACL will explode or a visiting team will have to forfeit because they never showed up after the charter bus was stolen and sold for butt hash.
But those things are hard to predict, even with advanced statistics. Norv Turner's not riding over the hill to reclaim his old coaching job with the Chargers and ensuring a fourth-quarter collapse. Philip Rivers has three 400-yard games this season. Through six weeks, he's got 1,847 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. The last time Rivers played the Jaguars, in 2011, he threw TDs. I get the feeling that could happen again.
That said, the Jaguars look more like they're coached by Gen. Patton than Gus Bradley. They go for it on fourth down, fake punts, and are playing like they know they have to do everything possible to win, no matter how unorthodox. It's refreshing.
The pick: Chargers
It'd be easy to write this one off, but it turns out Thad Lewis is the best kept secret in backup quarterbacking. I'm sorry, third string quarterbacking. Two passing touchdowns, a rushing score and 216 passing yards against the Bengals last week, without an interception, is no small feat. Miami's allowing opponents an average of 287 passing yards per game and sacking quarterbacks at an underwhelming 6.2 percent clip.
The matchup to watch here is Buffalo's defensive line against Miami's so-called pass protection. Ryan Tannehill's been sacked on more than 13 percent of his passing attempts for a league high 24 sacks. The Bills defensive line has 12 sacks in its last three games.
Put it all together, and I'm not buying that spread. It's massive when you do a side-by-side comparison of these two teams.
The pick: Bills
Bill Belichick doesn't want to give anyone any insight into the status of his injured players. Well, Bill, game pickers (?) and dispensers of hot takes don't have the luxury of a game-time decision. I'd feel OK about the Patriots if the defense was only missing one key player. They're without Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo for the rest of the year. Aqib Talib's status is unknown. Belichick's obvious course here is to troll Geno Smith for 60 minutes.
New York only lost by three points the last time these two teams met, in Week 3.
The pick: Jets
The NFC East refuses to play competent defense this year. And with these two teams facing off, the best bet is probably whatever the over is on the number of missed tackles. Dallas has looked like the best team in the division, thanks to a Week 5 pickup basketball game against the Broncos.
Philadelphia is 3-3 against the spread, and Dallas is 5-1. However, Dallas is just 1-4 against the spread in its last five meetings with the Eagles.
The NFC East is football purgatory, without any of the contemplation.
The pick: Eagles
Washington favored? With that defense? I'm as stunned as you are. But Jim Haslett's ability to fake his way through has paid off lately. His defense has held opponents to less than 300 yards in each of the last two games. They've been very good to teams in the red zone, however, allowing a 58 percent conversion rate.
The problem with this matchup is that the Bears, the Marc Trestman Bears, prefer to use the offense to win games now. Jay Cutler spreads the ball around these days. A more versatile game plan for Matt Forte also has given the Bears a 68 percent conversion rate in the red zone, a mismatch with Washington.
The pick: Bears
I know most of you circled this game for the Delanie Walker reunion. As exciting as that is, the real subplot here is a Gregg Williams coached defense taking on the 49ers. The last time that happened the pregame speechifying ended up as evidence in BountyGate. Something, something "kill the head."
Jim Harbaugh seems like the kind of guy who relishes an opportunity to teach people lessons, whether they need a lesson or not. Expect him to come unhinged by the end of the third quarter. If you're looking at a prop bet this week, a few bucks on some handshake ugliness won't be the worst investment you'll make.
The pick: 49ers
What a terrible matchup for Gary Kubiak's team to try and rebound from a self-inflicted loss to the Rams in Week 6. Matt Schaub may be able to play this week. If he can't, it'll be T.J. Yates or Case Keenum. It really doesn't matter. Whichever poor slob Kubiak sends out there is going to look like a delicious smoked pork loin to a BBQ-deprived Dontari Poe.
The pick: Chiefs
Browns vs. Packers (-10)
We've warned you about big spreads before. GIving the Packers 10 points against a tough Browns defense, with so many key offensive weapons on the shelf, looks gigantic.
Brandon Weeden is under center. Jason Campbell is holding the clipboard.
The pick: Packers
These AFC North showdowns used to be gritty affairs, narrowly decided by the unlikeliest of heroes. Last season it was Charlie Batch on a fourth-quarter comeback. The meeting before that one, it was Jacoby Jones scoring the game's only touchdown on a punt return.
Unlikely heroes should play an outsized role again this time, because that's really all either of these teams have left on the offensive side of the ball, outside of a pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
Pittsburgh has an edge, 5-3-2 against the spread, in the last 10 regular season games between these two teams. But the Steelers are a woeful 1-4 against the spread this season, including an 0-2 mark at home.
The pick: Ravens
It's Thursday Night Football on Monday night. It's also Josh Freeman's first chance to make Greg Schiano look even more petulant ... in prime time. However, this game isn't going to be decided by Minnesota's new quarterback. Opponents can run against the Giants as well as they can pass. Plan on a big day from Adrian Peterson.