And then there were two. That’s the number of undefeated teams remaining in the NFL as we turn the calendar to October, following the Dolphins’ blowout loss last week in New England.
I called for the potential demise of the other unbeatens in last week’s picks, fading the Rams and Chiefs against point spreads that looked inflated. Both L.A. and Kansas City got through Week 4 unscathed, but neither covered the number and the Chiefs needed a furious fourth-quarter rally (not to mention some assistance from the officials who missed a delay-of-game penalty) to pull out a dramatic 27-23 win in Denver.
But while I won’t be surprised at all to see the Chiefs suffer their first loss of the year, there are three other games that have caught my eye as the best value plays on the Week 5 board. Read about them below in my latest edition of NFL predictions for the week.
All odds that are referenced in this article were taken from BetOnline.ag at 9:45 p.m. eastern on October 4, 2018. These odds may have changed since the time of this writing.
1. Atlanta Falcons +3 (+105) over Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 1 p.m. eastern)
Public perception of the Steelers essentially requires the oddsmakers to make Pittsburgh the favorite here. So I can understand why the Steelers are laying a field goal in this spot, even if 3 points is considered the equivalent of home-field advantage (suggesting that Atlanta and Pittsburgh are virtually equal teams at this point). I just don’t agree with it.
Who are the Steelers to be laying points to anyone right now? Blame Le’veon Bell’s absence all you want for Pittsburgh’s 1-2-1 start, but Bell doesn’t play defense. Neither do the rest of the Steelers for that matter, having allowed 27+ points in three straight games after allowing 21 opening week to the Tyrod Taylor-led Browns. This is a problem that dates back to last year, when the Steelers gave up 27+ in four of their last seven — including 45 in a home loss to Jacksonville in the playoffs. With Matt Ryan and the high-powered Falcons offense rolling into town this week, I don’t see the Steelers’ 30th-ranked defense suddenly getting any better.
Atlanta’s defense is hardly a brick wall these days, either, and injuries in the Falcons’ secondary make them even more vulnerable right now. But even though Atlanta is 1-3, I’m far more confident in the Falcons’ potential to turn things around than I am with Pittsburgh’s. Atlanta’s three losses have all come by one score (and to the Eagles, Saints and Bengals), and the Dirty Birds’ victory came over a solid Panthers squad. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s lone win came against the Buccaneers, a three-point road victory that doesn’t look nearly as impressive after the Bucs were blown out last week in Chicago.
The spot sets up really well for Atlanta, coming off three home games and looking to essentially “save their season” with a win here against a team that has historically been great at home. The key word about Pittsburgh there is “historically”, since the Steelers haven’t had much of an advantage lately at Heinz Field — going 0-7 against the spread in their last seven games in front of their home fans. There’s a lot of pressure on Pittsburgh right now, which probably makes them play tighter and doesn’t bring out their best. If the Steelers win, I think it’s close, and I won’t be surprised at all to see the Falcons pull off the upset.
2. Houston Texans -3 (-120) over Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. eastern)
There’s a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL, and sometimes you just need something to go your way to get on a roll. That’s how I view the Texans’ victory last week over Indianapolis, a win that just may end up being what saved the season in Houston and sparked a run to the AFC South title.
Houston may have lost its first three games, but the Texans were hardly outclassed. All of those three losses were by seven points or less, and they gained 100 more yards than their opponent in two of them. When you’re losing games like that consistently, it can creep into your psyche, and the Texans were starting to look like a team that expected to find a way to lose games they should win. That’s sure what it looked like last week against Indianapolis as well, when Houston built a 28-10 lead, then watched Indy storm back with 18 unanswered points to tie the game.
In overtime, however, Colts head coach Frank Reich finally threw the Texans a bone, gift-wrapping a game-winning field goal for Houston by unsuccessfully going for it on fourth down in his own territory. Houston’s 37-34 victory not only saved Bill O’Brien his job (the Texans coach would almost certainly have been canned at 0-4 and after blowing an 18-point lead), it also breathed life into the Texans’ playoff hopes (they’re two games out of first in the South) and did wonders for their confidence.
Now they return home to take on a Dallas team that they really should handle with ease, especially defensively. The Cowboys’ only success on offense this year has come running the ball, but they’re extremely unbalanced, averaging just 166.5 yards through the air. This Texans’ defensive line and linebacking corps matches up really well against Dallas’ vaunted run game, forcing Dak Prescott to beat Houston through the air – and I don’t think he can. Look for Houston to build on last week’s emotional win with another victory here, and for the Texans to suddenly be back in the playoff race in the AFC.
3. Minnesota Vikings +3 (+100) over Philadelphia Eagles (4:25 p.m. eastern)
Maybe I’m stubborn, but I’m not ready to shovel dirt on the Vikings. I pushed a bet on them last Thursday night in LA as 7-point underdogs (if you got the 7.5 that was available, you won with Minnesota), and now that they’ve lost two straight, I’m even more interested in backing a squad that I believe is still a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the NFC.
Minny was appealing last week because of the bounceback angle following a humiliating home loss to the Bills. But the Vikes still had a lot going against them going into that Thursday contest with the Rams. Not only did they have to face arguably the best team in the NFL right now in their own stadium, they also had to do it on a short week – exacerbated by a long plane trip across the country. With little preparation time, Minnesota wasn’t able to devise much of a defensive scheme to shut down Jared Goff and the Rams, and LA lit them up for 38 points.
The cincher here is the motivation that Minnesota will bring to the table. While both teams will certainly be eager to get their seasons back on track, the Vikings have the added incentive of looking for revenge. Philadelphia absolutely humiliated the Vikes on this field last year in the NFC Championship Game, and you can bet the Minnesota players have been champing at the bit to avenge that 38-7 beatdown. I like the Vikings to improve to 25-9 ATS in their last 34 following a straight-up loss with a huge bounce back effort here, and recommend grabbing a piece of the +145 moneyline as well.