As the Rams, Chiefs, Saints, and Patriots get all of the midseason Super Bowl buzz, there’s another team that’s worthy of our attention. Through eight weeks, the Panthers have been one of the best teams in football, but they’re not getting any Super Bowl buzz.
They’re 5-2 and only one loss behind the Saints in the NFC South and two losses behind the Rams in the race for the top seed in the NFC — and with those two teams playing each other on Sunday, the Panthers have a chance to gain ground on one of them. They’re the league’s fourth-best team by DVOA. And they’re going to improve to 6-2 this weekend.
With the first of my five best bets this week, I’m taking the Panthers as 6.5-point favorites at home against the Buccaneers.
My reasoning is simple: The Panthers are one of the best teams in football and they’re playing against one of the worst teams in football (the Buccaneers are 29th in DVOA). They’re playing at home, where they’ve gone 4-0 this season with a plus-35 point differential. And the Buccaneers just benched Jameis Winston for Ryan Fitzpatrick. We’ll get to the Buccaneers’ many issues in a moment, but let’s stick with the Panthers for now.
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Cam Newton remains one of the most underappreciated quarterbacks in football. This has largely flown under the radar, but Newton is completing 66.4 percent of his passes. Entering the season, his career-best completion percentage was 61.7. His career completion percentage before this season was 58.5. Not only is he completing a higher percentage of his passes, but he’s also turning the ball over at a much lower rate. To this point, his interception percentage rests at 1.7 percent. His career interception percentage before this season was 2.7 percent. While increasing his accuracy and decreasing his turnovers, Newton’s remained the touchdown machine he’s always been throughout his career. With 13 touchdown passes and four rushing touchdowns, Newton’s on pace to score nearly 39 touchdowns this season.
Newton and the rest of the offense have powered the Panthers to this 5-2 start. By DVOA, the Panthers’ offense checks in at fifth while the defense slots in at 17th. A year ago, when the Panthers won 11 games, it was the reverse: The Panthers’ offense ranked 17th and the defense ranked seventh in DVOA.
Their offense should find more success on Sunday, namely because the Buccaneers’ defense is an abomination that ranks dead last in DVOA, 29th in yards allowed per game, and dead last in points allowed per game. Only twice this season, the Buccaneers have limited their opponents to fewer than 30 points. Those instances came against the Browns and the Nick Foles-quarterbacked Eagles.
The point being, Newton and the Panthers should be able to score at will against the Buccaneers. So, the only way the Buccaneers will be able to cover the 6.5-point spread is if Fitzpatrick can keep up with Newton and Panthers. I’m skeptical of that happening, which is why I’m taking the Panthers to beat the Buccaneers by at least a touchdown on Sunday.
Last week: 3-2
This year: 25-14-1
All odds via SportsLine
Panthers -6.5 vs. Buccaneers
The Panthers are the best team in football that’s being overlooked. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, just benched Jameis Winston for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
FitzMagic might’ve been fun while it lasted, but I’m skeptical of it continuing much longer. For one, this is a quarterback who owns a career passer rating of 81.3 across 138 appearances. Two, his career interception rate is 3.4. Even this year, as he’s managed to surpass all expectations, he’s still thrown a pick on 3.5 percent of his passes. As the Panthers put up points on the worst defense in football, Fitzpatrick will be forced to make things happen against a not great, but still solid defense. Eventually, over the course of a high-scoring game, FitzMagic should morph back into FitzTragic. And the Buccaneers’ defense isn’t good enough to overcome turnovers.
Raiders +2.5 at 49ers
This isn’t really a road game for the Raiders, who need to travel an hour south for Thursday night’s game. The 49ers, meanwhile, might be forced to start Nick Mullens with C.J. Beathard fighting through a wrist injury. The Raiders are bad, but the 49ers will be even worse if they’re starting Mullens, a former undrafted free agent who’s never played in a real NFL game before. I’ve remained critical of Derek Carr over the years, but he’s at least an NFL-caliber quarterback.
Either way, I’m expecting a close game. And with the Raiders as underdogs, I’ll happily take them in a game between two of the worst teams in football.
Bears -10 at Bills
Two words: Nathan Peterman.
My confidence in the Bears’ offense — with the unreliable Mitch Trubisky — scoring points on a very good Bills defense that mostly limited the Patriots’ offense to field goals is nonexistent. I am, however, confident that the Bills, who are likely starting Peterman at quarterback, will give the Bears some free points. Peterman’s career interception rate rests at 11.1 percent. The Bears’ defense, which is the league’s best defense by DVOA, has registered 17 takeaways — only team has more.
And for all the criticism that Trubisky has gotten for his inconsistent play, let’s not make him out as some horrible, Peterman-esque quarterback. He’s unreliable, but that doesn’t make him bad.
I don’t feel great about taking the Bears as huge road favorites because this Bears team occasionally looks like a team that is capable of losing to anyone (see: Brock Osweiler), but if they take care of the ball and wait for Peterman to throw the ball to them, they should be able to run away with this game.
It really says a lot about Peterman that I wouldn’t be willing to take the Bears in this spot if Derek Anderson was expected to start, but I am willing to take them knowing that Peterman is likely to play. That’s how much worse Peterman is than your average backup quarterback.
Chiefs -8.5 at Browns
The Browns’ one strength is their defense, which is third in DVOA and first in takeaways. The problem is, the Chiefs don’t seem to care about how good an opposing defense is — no matter what, they’re scoring points and taking care of the ball. For as often as Patrick Mahomes is pushing the ball downfield and making incredible throws into tight coverage, he’s thrown only six interceptions. He doesn’t really throw that many interceptable passes. I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly start doing so on Sunday.
The Chiefs might not put up 40 points, but they’re going to score. It’s just impossible to ask any defense to stop an offense that has Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt as the focal points and Sammy Watkins as a secondary option. The Browns’ offense, meanwhile, has struggled and should continue to struggle against a Chiefs defense doesn’t look so terrible all of a sudden. By DVOA, they’re 13th against the pass. They’re still dead last against the run, but the Browns can’t expect to keep pace with the Chiefs’ offense by running the ball. At some point, they’ll need Baker Mayfield to push the ball downfield. When that happens, he won’t be able to keep up with Mahomes.
For the Browns to hang around, they’ll need turnovers. I don’t see them getting those turnovers against an offense that knows how to protect the ball. The Chiefs have given the ball away only seven times.
Redskins (-1.5) vs. Falcons
Like the Panthers, the Redskins aren’t getting enough recognition for what they’ve done.
They’re 5-2 and they just added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a very good safety, to the back end of their defense. Offensively, they grind down opposing defenses by running (128 yards per game) and hanging onto the ball (32:27 minutes per game), which helps their middle-of-the-pack defense (14th in DVOA) perform better than their true talent level (19.1 points allowed per game).
There’s a very real possibility the Falcons will put up points quickly — Matt Ryan has 13 touchdowns and zero picks in his past five games — but even if that happens, the Falcons’ defense is bad enough that the Redskins can hang with them in a shootout. The Falcons’ defense is the second worst by DVOA (behind only the Buccaneers) and third-worst by points allowed (30.3). Ryan is good enough to keep the Falcons around, but the Redskins are a better overall team. Plus, they’re at home.
Redskins win by a field goal.
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