Steve O’Rourke - For once, the phrase Any Given Sunday actually rings through

19 min

Thinking about the 2017/18 NFL season would give you a headache. The Chiefs started the season 5-0, but have since lost two straight, the latest a Thursday Night Football thriller to the Oakland Raiders.

The Silver and Black, after opening with two wins, had been on a three-game losing skid, including a one-point, last-minute field goal loss to the Chargers who, after losing their first three games of the season held the Denver Broncos scoreless this past weekend.

The Broncos, for their part, had beaten LA in their opening game of the season and hammered the Cowboys in week two — looking like real Super Bowl contenders in the process — but have now lost three of their last four.

The result of all of this carnage is that the Chiefs lead the division with a 5-2 record, with everyone else on three wins (though the Broncos have only three losses compared to four for the Chargers and Raiders). And this is just one division.

The AFC East has three teams with a winning record — Patriots (5-2), Bills (4-2) and Dolphins (4-2) — with the latter doing so despite having a points differential of -20. Speaking of negative points differentials, the Titans (4-3) lead the AFC South despite scoring 15 fewer points than they’ve conceded. Second place in that division goes to the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3), the team with the best points differential in the NFL (74), but one that somehow conspired to lose to the Titans meaning Tennessee holds the tie-break.

Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor has led the Bills to a surprising 4-2 start.

The AFC North appears to be falling into Pittsburgh’s (5-2) hands with the rest of the division combining for three total touchdowns last weekend. And, on the subject of struggling offenses, out in the NFC South, the once-terrifying Falcons offense (3-3) has managed 41 points in their past three games combined, while the Panthers (4-3) scored just three points last weekend against the Bears. Both trail the Saints (4-2), quarterbacked by the seemingly ageless Drew Brees.

The Rams (5-2) have the most potent offence in the NFL and lead the NFC West from the Seattle Seahawks — who they lost to, scoring only 10 points, back in week five — while the Cardinals (3-4) will be without their quarterback for the next two months and the 49ers (0-7) can’t buy a win.

The Eagles (6-1) look to be the class of the conference and, alongside the Patriots and Steelers, the only team you might confidently nail your colours to the mast to when it comes to finishing as divisional winners with Washington (3-3) and Dallas (3-3) having to settle for the wildcard hunt in the NFC East. And finally, there’s very little to separate all four teams in the NFC North — Vikings (5-2), Packers (4-3), Lions (3-3) and Bears (3-4) — with no Aaron Rodgers to Hail Mary Green Bay’s way to the playoffs.

What does it all mean as we get close the halfway stage of the season? We’re as close as we might ever get to all teams finishing 8-8. It’s just a pity the Browns, Colts, Giants, and 49ers have to ruin it for the rest of us.

London Game – Minnesota Vikings (5-2) @ Cleveland Browns (0-7) – 1.30pm, Twickenham

After a run of relatively interesting games making up the NFL’s International Series in London, there’s no point in pretending that this year’s slate has been anything other than awful with three one-sided games to date. Indeed, the winners (Jacksonville, New Orleans, and the LA Rams) have outscored the losers (Baltimore, Miami, and Arizona) by 97-7 and that one score was a Ryan Mallett garbage time TD in the very first game.

And to round it off, the Minnesota Vikings — on their third-choice quarterback — come to town this weekend to take on the Cleveland Browns, almost certainly the worst team in professional football (though the Colts run them close).

The problem for the Browns is not, as some would have you believe, a front office obsessed with draft picks and analytics. The problem with Cleveland is Hue Jackson. In his time as head coach with both the Raiders and Browns, Jackson is 2-0 on Christmas Eve and 0-26 on every other day of the year.

Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson turned to QB Cody Kessler (right) last week benching starter Deshone Kizer.

Last week, against the Titans, the Browns were involved in one of the worst games of football you’re ever likely to see; a 12-9 snorefest that would make compelling evidence to ban overtime in regular season games. It’s a game they could, perhaps should, have won, but losing left tackle Joe Thomas after 11 years and 10,363 consecutive snaps — as well as Jackson’s complete inability to pick a quarterback and stick with him — could see the so-called Factory of Sadness go through this season without a win.

The Vikings sit atop the NFC North with Case Keenum providing more than adequate cover for Sam Bradford who, of course, is only in Minnesota because Teddy Bridgewater missed all of last season through injury. The former first-round pick is back training and could feature as soon as week 10 — with the Vikings on a bye next week — which is incredible when you consider there were some who felt he might never play again. Were Bridgewater to come back and lead his team to a Super Bowl win in their own stadium next February, it would make for the greatest sports story ever told.

Minnesota go into this game as nine-point favourites and if London has taught us anything this season it’s that the game won’t be close.

Given the Vikings are only managing 20.8 points per game this season and the Browns are, well, the Browns, I’ll also be taking the under (38).

Sky Game 1 – Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 5pm

The first thing worth noting about this game is that this is the one magical weekend of the year when all the games kick off an hour earlier so be sure to make your fantasy football plans accordingly. The second is that, even though we’re only in week eight, this could very well be a win-or-go-home game as the NFC South might not give us two playoff teams considering how tight it is going to be for a wild-card spot in that conference.

The Carolina Panthers broke a record last weekend, but it was an unwanted one when they became the first team in NFL history give up two 75-yard defensive touchdowns to an individual player — Eddie Jackson of the Bears — in the same game.

Given that Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed just four of seven passes — a statistic not seen since the Tim Tebow days — there’s an argument the Panthers would have had a better chance of winning if they’d punted every first down and forced the Bears to play some offense.

Panthers QB Cam Newton was abysmal vs the Bears last Sunday and will look for big improvements this week.

Cam Newton and the Panthers are really struggling to find any sort of identity this season. Rookie Christian McCaffrey has been disappointing so far — managing just 16 yards per attempt on the ground and 47 through the air — while the return of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil was supposed to make things better up front last weekend, the32-year old had to leave on the second drive after re-aggravating the neck injury that has kept him out five weeks.

If Carolina are struggling to discover who they are on offense, the Bucs defense is having a serious identity crisis. Having finished as the 23rd ranked defense last season, defensive coordinator Mike Smith must have felt very concerned last weekend when they gave the Bills the ball back with just over three minutes to play. However, even he can’t have imagined it would take Buffalo just 46 seconds, and three plays, to move the ball 75 yards and tie the game before an Adam Humphries fumble gifted Buffalo the win on the next Tampa possession. Giving up drives like that; it’s little wonder that Tampa Bay ranks 31st in Football Outsiders Defensive DVOA.

On offense, the Bucs can look to OJ Howard’s monster day as a positive with the rookie tight end finishing the game with six catches for 98 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns. Only five teams have given up more touchdowns to opposing tight ends than the Panthers (4) this season so expect that to be a match-up Tampa Bay tries to exploit, especially with Luke Kuechly — so adept at covering tight ends — unlikely to feature.

The Buccaneers go into this game as 2.5 point favourites and are riding a two-game win streak over their divisional rivals.

However, it’s worth noting that Carolina had won the eight of the previous 10 match-ups and I expect them to bounce back.

Likewise, six of the last eight have come in at less than this week’s points total (48) so I’ll also be taking the under.

Sky Game 2 – Dallas Cowboys (3-3) @ Washington Redskins (3-3) – 9.25pm

If the previous game is possibly important when it comes to deciding which teams will be playing meaningful football come January, this one certainly is. With the Philadelphia Eagles running away with the NFC East, head-to-head could be crucial when it comes to deciding who, if anyone, will be the second team out of this division.

Of course, that’s assuming either of these teams are actually any good.

For Dallas, their three wins have come against teams — Giants, Cardinals, and 49ers — with a combined record of 4-17 while Washington’s have been against teams — Raiders, 49ers, and Rams — with a combined record of 8-13.

Indeed, between them, they’ve managed one win against a team with a winning record, so it’s hardly a murderer’s row of contenders.

The deadly duo of Zak Prescott and Zeke Elliot will look to cause the Redskins Defense untold trouble on Sunday night.

That said, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had the best game of his career last weekend, throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for another in a 40-10 beatdown of a 49ers team many pundits thought could cover the spread. It looks like Zeke Elliott will play in this game as his impending six-game suspension continues to be delayed by courtroom wranglings. And they should have a kicker this week — veteran Mike Nugent — after being forced to use safety Jeff Heath last time out.

For Washington, Monday’s loss to the Eagles was a setback, but linebacker Zack Brown had a decent game with 1.5 sacks and 13 tackles and will look to take advantage of a Dallas offensive line that is not the league-leading outfit we’ve come to expect over the past few seasons. On the other side of the ball, with Dallas ranking dead last against the run, expect Chris Thompson to play a major role in this game after managing a paltry, yet team-leading, 38 yards against Philly on Monday Night Football.

The Cowboys have won six of the last 10 meetings between these divisional rivals and you have to go all the way back to 2012 for Washington’s last home win so I’ll be taking Dallas (-2.5).

Even though 50.5 is a high points total, this game historically produces shootouts with the last three encounters hitting at least 50 points.

Click here for Matchbooks Latest NFL markets