2018 NFL Week 4 Picks & Previews: Which Surprise Teams Come Back Down to Earth?

Welcome to my Week 4 NFL picks and previews.  It was a rough week for me last week, as I finished 6-10.  But luckily, I’m still 27-19-2 (28-19-2 including TNF Week 4) due to my strong week in Week 2.  I’m still ahead of 9 of ESPN’s 10 experts, and half of CBS Sports’ 8 experts. There have been a lot of surprises in the NFL so far this year.  Unexpected contenders have emerged, and what were perceived as some of the NFL’s best teams are struggling to keep up.  I definitely think this week will set some things straight.  Some of the expected contenders will start to surpass the surprise teams.  The question is, which surprise teams come down to earth first?  Keep reading to find out what I think.

Lock of the Week

QB Sam Darnold and the Jets offense looked good in the first couple weeks.  But this offense is still very young and has things to learn. I expect this dominant Jaguars defense to tear apart New York’s offensive game plan.  The pressure of Sacksonville will get to Darnold, which will mess up the entire offensive scheme for the Jets. The Jaguars offense doesn’t have to have a field day to win a game, and they’ve made that very clear.  RB Leonard Fournette will likely return this week.  They had been fine without him, at home against the Patriots!  Given that, this home game against the Jets with Fournette back should be a clinic in Jacksonville’s favor.  

Upset of the Week

QB Sam Bradford had clearly declined, and after two weeks, all Cardinals fans knew Bradford wasn’t the answer.  But Steve Wilks has finally put QB Josh Rosen in as the starter!  Rosen was my favorite QB of this year’s draft, and I expect him to completely turn around the Cardinals offense this week.  I don’t expect this kind of consistency throughout the year in 2018.  But this will give us a glimpse at what the Cardinals invested in down the road, kind of like what the Jets received from QB Sam Darnold in his first game.  I think Rosen can handle the rebuilding Seattle defense on his home turf. Look for Arizona’s tight ends to have an especially strong game as well.  Meanwhile, the Seattle defense will struggle to contain Rosen and RB David Johnson.  Their offense will see slight improvement with WR Doug Baldwin likely to return, but nothing significant as Arizona pulls off the upset at home.

The Other Games

TNF (Posted on Twitter Thursday Night, Actual Score: 38-31 Rams)

Don’t expect an especially strong game from WRs Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.  This Rams secondary is one of the league’s best.  However, the ground game will lead the way for the Vikes and make this close.  Look for QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley to lead the Rams to victory with the help of strong defense.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST

Look for Miami’s receivers to thrive against a New England secondary that lacks a #2 corner.  #1 CB Stephon Gilmore will shut down WR DeVante Parker though.  However, this Dolphins run game is not the greatest, and if the Pats can shut them down, there is hope for the New England D.  I don’t think the Pats suck. Their last two Super Bowl-winning seasons started with 2 wins and 2 losses. Plus, they lost to a coach who knows them really well and their toughest opponent.  I think QB Tom Brady will find open men to lead New England to victory here.  This victory that will begin a long winning streak for the Pats.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST

The Packers are a pass-first offense, and I don’t think the Bills will be able to keep them under control without CB Vontae Davis.  I don’t see this as a blowout though.  QB Josh Allen and the Bills offense will make it close.  But Green Bay will win at home by a comfortable margin, led by a dominant passing game.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST

Look for QB Matt Ryan and his newfound WR duo to overwhelm the Bengals secondary and score multiple TDs.  I don’t think the Bengals will be as strong on offense here without RB Joe Mixon. They will lose this one thanks to surprisingly strong defense by Atlanta.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST

I think the Texans will do alright against the weak Colts defense in an effort for their first win.  But depth has been a problem for this team from the start, and that will hinder their success.  The Colts will give the Texans a scare.  This will be thanks to a pretty good week by QB Andrew Luck and his offense, even against the fierce Houston D.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST

WR Rishard Matthews was released by the Titans this week.  Now, the Titans lack a healthy QB and lack WR depth.  That will cause the offense regressive struggles.  The Eagles defense will also do their job in shutting down Tennessee’s RB duo.  QB Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense will cruise to victory, especially if WR Alshon Jeffery plays.  
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST

Expect an offensive shootout here. Both these defenses are some of the league’s worst, and I think both these offenses are underrated.  The Cowboys pass defense will struggle excessively against the LIons strong WR corps.  However, I think QB Dak Prescott will finally turn it around against the struggling Detroit D.  This will lead them to a home win.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST

 

I think the Bucs will start QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in this game.  Look for the Fitzmagic to continue, but will it be enough for the Bucs in Chicago?  I’m concerned that Tampa’s secondary will blow it for them against QB Mitch Trubisky and the Bears underrated WR corps.  I also feel that the Bucs young run game will struggle against Khalil Mack and the Bears run defense. These two things will lead Chicago to victory at home.
Sunday, 4:05 PM EST

QB Baker Mayfield will lead the Browns to another strong offensive game here against a declining Raiders D.  But you cannot sleep on these Raiders receivers. Against a young Cleveland defense, expect QB Derek Carr and the Raiders deep WR corps to dominate.  I also expect a strong game from Oakland’s running backs that assist Carr in an offensive shootout victory.
Sunday, 4:25 PM EST

The 49ers will miss QB Jimmy Garoppolo here.  QB C.J. Beathard will do alright in LA, but he will be nowhere near Garoppolo’s level.  I don’t see him finishing the job for the Niners. Meanwhile, the Chargers offense will have a strong day against the 49ers young D.  QB Philip Rivers, RB Melvin Gordon, and the strong offense will lead LA to victory.
Sunday, 4:25 PM EST

QB Eli Manning and his receivers should do alright against a Saints defense that has significantly declined since last year.  But they will miss TE Evan Engram. Meanwhile, RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas will have dominant games that lead the Saints to victory despite an underwhelming game by QB Drew Brees.
SNF (Sunday, 8:20 PM EST)

The Steelers may be declining without RB Le’Veon Bell, but they are still an average team that can win some games without him.  I think the Steelers defense will be able to shut down the Ravens attack. Plus, QB Ben Roethlisberger will find plenty of weapons to lead Pittsburgh to victory, even without Bell.
MNF (Monday, 8:15 PM EST) (OT)

This will be a very close game.  QB Patrick Mahomes II will lead a strong Chiefs offense to a big game.  But the Chiefs are all offense, no defense, and they will struggle to contain Denver’s receivers.  I could see this going to overtime, but I don’t see the Chiefs winning with their run game struggling against the unstoppable Denver front seven.

That’s all for my Week 4 picks and previews.  Feel free to comment with your thoughts.

 

Patriots Training Camp with Bob Socci

Today, I had the opportunity to spend a day at Patriots training camp as a member of the press, shadowing Patriots radio play-by-play announcer and Patriots.com Beat Reporter Bob Socci.  I first met Bob at the NFL Kickoff event with the Patriots broadcast team, held at Mr. Sid last year.  (Note: I will be going back to a similar event on September 6th).

Bob learned about the work I had done as a sports blogger and offered to help me by inviting me to Patriots training Camp with him.

Before Practice Began:  “Pre-Game” Videos and Fan Experience

I arrived a little bit early so I could do a live stand-up in front of Gillette Stadium and also conduct some interviews with fans.

First, I interviewed a long-time Pats fan named Jan.  She meets a friend at Gillette every year who gives her the insight on the players at Patriots training camp.

After that, I interviewed Arjun, a 6th grader from Philadelphia who likes the Patriots so much that his parents decided to make the trip north this year.  He was very excited to see the team live for the first time.

Many young fans like Arjun also had the opportunity to take advantage of Fan Experience activities held around the practice fields.  My Dad further explored some of the activities while I was with Bob and the rest of the media.

They had football activities where they tracked your performance and created a Player Profile.  Jimmy from the Patriots staff was really nice and created my card with Pat Patriot’s stats.

Training Camp Profile Card

There were also a number of booths with give-aways for participating in small games like mini-golf skee ball and photo opportunities like the one with my dad.

IMG_6825

Becoming Official Pats Media Member for the Day

Bob Socci met me soon after my interviews in front of the stadium.  I said goodbye to my dad and Bob took me to go get my press pass.

IMG_6818.JPG

We walked to the other side of the stadium and went through media security there.  After I gave them my name and affiliation, they handed me my press pass.

My press pass from training camp

All media members received a detailed Patriots preseason roster and media guidelines from the media security table to help us learn about who we were covering and what coverage was permitted and when.

img_0201

On my way to the media tent, Bob explained a few things to me about the training camp roster:

  1. Since there are many players on the roster and the roster is not finalized, there may be pairs of players who share a number
  2. Rookies wear numbers based on when they were drafted during training camp and their camp numbers do not usually correspond with their position.  The team’s first draft pick, T Isaiah Wynn wears #50, their second pick, RB Sony Michel wears #51, their third pick, CB Duke Dawson wears #52, and so on.  For the regular season they receive new numbers.
  3. During training camp, quarterbacks wear red while the rest of the offense wears white and the defense wears blue.  On the roster, offensive players who share a number with defensive players (and vice versa) have (o) for offense or (d) for defense next to their name.

Bob also mentioned that during camp, there would only be a 10-20 minute session for media to take photos and videos, and that no tweeting was allowed during camp for media members.  We were allowed to take notes during the no photo/video portions of practice.

Bob told me that after practice the media guidelines would be more flexible.  The only major rules were to stay within certain interviewing boundaries and not take any photos or video of players with their families without permission.

Before practice began, Bob introduced me to the vice president of media relations at training camp, Stacey James, as well as fellow media member Jim McBride.  I also had time to catch up with ESPN Patriots beat reporter Mike Reiss, who I had met earlier in the week at Sports Broadcasting Camp.   I also met a friend of Bob’s, Steve Yood, along with his sons Alex and Josh.

Watching Practice from the Media Tent

Practice started about 5 minutes after we arrived at the media tent.  During practice, I also met Marc Cappello of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Josh Brogadir of WCVB, and Steve Atkinson of Boston Sports Extra.  They were surprised to see someone my age in the media tent.  Some of them told me what they did at my age and how they wished they had started earlier.

The Patriots practice began with some warm-ups.  The team stretched, jogged a little bit, and threw the ball around.  Afterwards they began a walk-through of some plays they would use later in 11 on 11 drills.

Positional drills began after the walk-through portion practice.  This was the portion of practice when the media photo and video session took place.  Offensive lineman competed 1 on 1 against defensive lineman, wide receivers caught balls from a receiving coach, and quarterbacks stayed together as well to take practice throws.  During this time, PK Stephen Gostkowski practiced field goals.  Here is some of my video coverage.

After the photo and video session ended, positional drills continued.  The QBs began throwing to the receivers directly.  Soon after that, they had the Pats secondary go 1 on 1 against receivers catching passes from QBs Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, and Danny Etling.  The Pats ran a few more offense vs. defense practice plays before starting the 11 on 11 drills.

The Patriots alternated personnel during the 11 on 11 drills with quarterbacks Brady and Hoyer getting most of the reps at QB .  Before practice ended, the Pats held a few more running drills on the hills around the field.  Then, for most of the team, practice ended.  A few guys, including Danny Etling, put in a little extra work after the full team practice.

Some of my Observations from Day 4 of Patriots Training Camp

Keep an eye out for Phillip Dorsett and Jacob Hollister

img_0202
WR Phillip Dorsett (#13) after catching a ball from the coach during positional drills

I kept a tally of Brady’s ball distribution during a couple of his drills, and his most frequent target during those drills was Dorsett.  Dorsett had an especially strong catch on a deep pass from Brady during the offensive walk-through.  Hollister had a nice jumping catch in the end zone that Brian Hoyer threw to him during 11 on 11 drills.

Patriots RBs could be a big part of the offense again this season

Brady wasn’t just throwing to receivers and tight ends today.  Brady, Hoyer, and Etling all participated in a drill where they threw short passes to RBs including James White and Pats 2018 2nd draft pick from the first round, Sony Michel.  Michel caught a short pass at the 30 yard line and took it to the house during 11 on 11 drills.

After practice, I was happy to see Meredith Gorman who I worked with last summer at the Boston Herald.  Meredith, now with Patriots.com, conducted a 1 on 1 interview with Michel.

img_0204
Meredith Gorman, who now works for patriots.com, interviewing rookie RB Sony Michel after practice

Great to see Julian Edelman back on the field

I enjoyed seeing Tom Brady connecting with WR Julian Edelman for the first time since Super Bowl LI.  Even though he is suspended for the first four games, Edelman missed the entire season last year and now he is back and seems ready to play and make more amazing catches like the one that most remember as “the catch” from the Pats 5th Super Bowl win.   Edelman looked like his old self out there making some good plays along with Pats newcomer WR Jordan Matthews.  Other pass catchers I liked seeing were TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Chris Hogan.  Gronk had a catch deep up the seam even though he was tightly covered, which is one reason Pats fans love watching him.

Image result for edelman catch
Super Bowl LI “the catch” by Edelman

Brian Hoyer had some good end zone connections

I watched all 3 of the Pats quarterbacks perform today but the QB I was most impressed with was Brian Hoyer.  Hoyer made successful end zone connections on his first two passes, including a great throw to Jacob Hollister in the corner of the end zone.

IMG_0148.JPG
QBs Hoyer (2) and Etling (58) during practice
IMG_0191
Brian Hoyer after practice

 

Don’t Discount New England secondary

img_0206
Stephon Gilmore being interviewed after practice

Even though one of last year’s starting CB and Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler signed with the Titans in the offseason, I still believe that Pats will have a good secondary.  For example, today I saw CB Stephon Gilmore break up several pass plays in 1 on 1 coverage against Julian Edelman, nearly intercepting one pass thrown by Tom Brady.  Rookie and Pats 2018 #3 draft pick CB Duke Dawson also came close to picking off Brady while covering Phillip Dorsett.

Trey Flowers was back at practice with bandage on forehead

Flowers returned to practice after leaving yesterday with an ice pack on his head.  In other injury news, Jordan Matthews left today’s practice with an unknown injury, and CB Keion Crossen (back) and RB Mike Gillislee (unknown) did not practice.  Bob Socci told me that WR Kenny Britt, CB Cyrus Jones, CB Jonathan Jones, and WR Matthew Slater were on the PUP list.  However, I did notice Britt participating in warm-ups.  According to the official training camp roster, WRs Darren Andrews and Cody Hollister are on the Reserve/NFI list.

After Practice: Media Session and Tour

After practice ended, Bob and I headed to the designated player interview zone.  I watched some of the interviews.  Bob Socci conducted a stand-up recap with Megan O’Brien as they discussed their own observations from the day.  Some of the topics he mentioned in the interview were things we talked about in the media tent together during the practice:

img_0207
Bob Socci and Megan O’Brien Day 4 Recap

James White, Sony Michel, RB Rex Burkhead, T Trent Brown, DE Derek Rivers, and QB Brian Hoyer were among those interviewed.  Although he didn’t stop for interviews, I did see Gronk walk by, as well as a few other players like Phillip Dorsett and Dont’a Hightower.  I also saw the McCourty twins with all their family on the field.  I think it is really cool that after many years on different teams they will now play on the same team and they seem to be enjoying camp together.

Nobody was interviewed at the podium today like Tom Brady was yesterday.  This area is primarily used for interviews with star players like Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

IMG_0163.JPG
The empty podium at practice today

In between and after the media interviews, I met some media members including Levan Reid of WBZ, Joe Gallant of WNRI (a radio station in Providence), and Megan O’Brien of Patriots.com.   I also said hello to patriots.com’s Meredith Gorman and the Boston Herald’s Meghan Ottolini.

After the post practice interviews were over, Bob took me inside Gillette Stadium so I could see the media area.  He showed me the TV studio where Patriots All Access is aired.  The studio was filled with football helmets on the shelves and Patriots logos all around.  Bob mentioned he hosts a show with Scott Zolak in the studio next door.  We also walked by the game day media workroom, the writing rooms for various newspapers and blogs, and the weekday press conference room which was the biggest room of them all.

In total, I spent about 4 hours with Bob today and feel like I learned so much about covering the Patriots.  In addition, I saw so much from the media’s point of view.  It was truly incredible and surreal at times.

I’d like to thank Bob Socci and Stacey James for making this experience possible for me.  I’d also like to thank all the media members who spent the time to talk to me and give me tips on sports reporting.