NFL Week 6 Preview & Picks - The Four Pillars of NFL Contention

Sorting the contenders, pretenders, and every team in between

Seth Dunlap
October 11, 2018 - 9:09 pm

Coverage of the NFL is more over-reactive than any other major American sport.  It’s something we’ve discussed at length before.    Respected sports journalists were salivating about Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the quarterback threw for over 400 yards in back to back games to open the season, both wins for the Bucs.  If that happened in Weeks 13 and 14 while the Bucs were slogging through another forgettable season, the story would have barely registered on the national radar.   We saw #Fitzmagic trend because it happened during the league’s first two weeks – the perfect breeding ground for blissful overreaction.

For the more level-headed among us, patience is a true virtue when analyzing early-season results in the NFL.  Let the hot take riptides swallow the over-reactors through the first quarter of the season.  Then, those who were savvy enough to stay patient will emerge unscathed with a much clearer picture of the league’s hierarchy. 

Yes, the quarter-pole of the NFL season is a great marker to begin sorting contending teams from the pretenders.  Binary separation doesn’t feel very 2018.  There’s room for more nuance than just contender/pretender, so here we’ll begin separating each NFL team into one of four different categories that we'll give a catchy, marketing-friendly name: The Four Pillars of NFL Contention. 

  • Title Favorites:  The true Super Bowl favorites.  Nobody would be surprised if one of these teams is hoisting the Lombardi in February. 
  • Challengers:  Not the favorites in the eyes of fans, analysts, nor Vegas but with the right combination of fortune and fortuity they remain in real contention, should the favorites falter.
  • Mediocre Middle:  A large grouping of teams consisting of uninspiring, often fringe, playoff contenders and teams with a serious talent disparity against the top two tiers.  The chances are extremely remote than anybody from this group sniffs the Super Bowl.
  • The Muck:  An aptly named pillar, borrowed from the poker world.   Teams ranging from disastrous to forgettable, discarded into the heap of also-rans that shouldn’t be seriously discussed until the 2019 Draft.

Along with this week’s picks, teams will be sorted around one of those Four Pillars.

About those picks, I had a great week straight up and against the spread last week, but one that comes with a huge caveat.   I went 9-5-1 against the spread to, finally, get back close to .500 on the year – this is the longest I’ve remained under .500 ATS to open a season in a handful of years.   However, I broke my top two NFL ATS rules in picking against both the Patriots and Seahawks at home.  Never again!  I will blindfold myself and pick those two teams from now to eternity (or at least until they’re playing in a different stadium) when they play at home.  That’s two gimme games I gave up!  Unacceptable.  I won’t let that happen again.

Now, on to the picks for Week 6!


Eagles (-1.5) @ Giants (Thursday Night Football)

Eagles (Challengers Pillar):  A very uninspiring start to the season that hasn’t hurt their playoff chances all that much.  The NFC East is back to being one of the worst divisions in the league, and Philadelphia remains just a half game back of first place Washington.  However, as their loss at home last week to the Vikings proved, they’re far from a favorite in the NFC.

Giants (The Muck Pillar):  The team’s previous head coach got fired for believing Eli Manning needed to be replaced.  Now those same people inside the locker room and inside the media who derided Ben McAdoo’s benching of Manning last season are in near open revolt of Manning.  It’s ugly in New York.

Pick: Eagles 27, Giants 17

Pick Against the Spread: Eagles (-1.5)


Buccaneers @ Falcons (-3)

Falcons (Mediocre Middle Pillar):  This Falcons season was essentially over after Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Andy Levitre were placed on injured reserve.  No NFL team can recover from losing that kind of top-tier talent and remain a contender.  The coaching staff may stabilize the bleeding, but the damage has been done and Atlanta will host the 2019 Super Bowl without their home team in attendance.

Buccaneers (Mediocre Middle):  This may be an improvement over preseason expectations, but the Bucs once again look like the worst team in a very good NFC South division.  Dirk Koetter is coaching for his job, while Jameis Winster has returned to play for his, which may give fans enough of a reason to stay somewhat intrigued by this soap opera.

Pick: Falcons 31, Bucs 23

ATS: Falcons (-3)


Steelers @ Bengals (-2)

Steelers (Challengers Pillar):  Pittsburgh probably needs to win this critical intra-division game to stay around the Challengers Pillar, but they showed signs of life in a 41-17 curb stomping of Atlanta last week.  This is a franchise that traditionally thrives with its proverbial back against the wall. 

Bengals (Challengers Pillar):  Marvin Lewis is at least in the same time zone as Ron Rivera when it comes to discussing the most underrated NFL coaches.  Lewis shouldn’t be considered among the league’s best, but he’s regularly thought of among the league’s worst.   He’s guided the Bengals (!) to the playoffs seven times in his tenure and they look to be headed that was again.  Whether they’ll actually win a playoff game is a topic for different conversation.   A win here and they have a near hammer-lock on the division after six weeks.

Pick: Steelers 26, Bengals 24

ATS: Steelers (+2)


Chargers (-1.5) @ Browns

Chargers (Mediocre Middle):  As described in my NFL Power 12 rankings, the Chargers are clinging to their playoff hopes by a thread.  They anxiously await the return of Joey Bosa who should instantly make their defense much better.  Can they hang on until then?  That’s very debatable and they look nothing like a challenger to Patriots, Chiefs or even Jaguars in the AFC right now.  

Browns (Mediocre Middle):  Perhaps the most exciting .500 team in NFL history, the Browns have ridden Mayfield Mania out of their perpetual rebuild phase and into that sneaky Teams Nobody Wants to Play tier.  They may not challenge this season, but 2019 looks like it could be really fun for the Dawg Pound.

Pick:  Browns 24, Chargers 23

ATS: Browns (+1.5)


Seahawks (-2.5) vs. Oakland (London)

Seahawks (Mediocre Middle):  A place this franchise hasn’t often been the past two decades -- the depressing and uninspiring middle.  The 12’s around the Pacific Northwest knew this would be a transition year.  They hoped it wouldn’t turn into a full-fledged rebuild, and it hasn’t.   They may nip at the heels of a .500 season or perhaps even wrangle a playoff berth out of a surprisingly wide-open NFC wild-card race but they’re at least a couple of seasons away from real contention again.

Oakland (The Muck):  The Raiders are giving a middle-finger goodbye to Oakland with perhaps the most poorly constructed roster in the NFL.  I’m not ready to declare the Gruden Era a complete bust yet, but it’s really ugly so far. Vegas, here they come.

Pick: Seahawks 27, Raiders 24

ATS: Seahawks (-2.5)


Bears (-3.5) @ Dolphins

Bears (Mediocre Middle):  There’s no way you can get me to put the Mitchell Trubisky-led Bears into the Challengers tier . . . yet.  I need to see more.  They’ve beaten the middling Seahawks and Bucs at home, and barely snuck by the terrible Cardinals on the road.   There’s also that implosion against the Packers in Week 1, another team that’s looking more like they won’t sniff contention this season.

Dolphins (Mediocre Middle):  Welcome to Miami, a city that cares more about the cover charges on South Beach than their football team.  Still, this isn’t a bad Dolphins team.  Just a forgettable one.  Sometimes forgettable teams find themselves in the playoffs, especially in a bad conference.

Pick: Dolphins 23, Bears 20

ATS: Dolphins (+3.5)


Cardinals @ Vikings (-10)

Cardinals (The Muck):  This never-proud franchise is back to their usual place as a dormat in the NFC West. Cardinals’ fans are really going to miss the Bruce Arians years.

Vikings (Challengers):  When we look back on the 2018 regular season, there might not be win that stands out more than last week’s triumph in Philadelphia by the Vikings.  A true season-saving type win for Minnesota who vaults back to being the favorites in the NFC North after the Packers stumble against Detroit.

Pick: Vikings 30, Cardinals 17

ATS: Vikings (-10)


Colts @ Jets (-2.5)

Colts (The Muck):  Close losses to the Eagles and Houston (in overtime) skew perceptions of the Colts a bit who now face three consecutive sub .500 teams with a chance to turn their season off a disastrous course towards a respectable one. 

Jets (Mediocre Middle):  With everybody paying attention to Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, many have missed the relatively uninspiring start for Jets QB Sam Darnold, who most analysts projected to have the best pro career of any quarterback drafted this season. 

Pick: Jets 26, Colts 24

ATS: Colts (+2.5)


Carolina @ Washington (-1)

Carolina (Mediocre Middle):  Ron Rivera once again has this team exceeding expectations.  Is there a more disrespected head coach in football than Riverboat Ron?  I like the Panthers, I don’t like them on the road this week. 

Washington (Mediocre Middle):  People need to finally understand that Alex Smith can make teams decent.  He can elevate bad teams to decency.  He can also turn would-be contenders into plodding frustration-fests.  This season he’s keeping Washington out of The Muck.

Pick: Washington 23, Carolina 20

ATS: Washington (-1)


Bills @ Texans (-10)

Bills (The Muck):  Don’t overreact to the Bills win home win against the Titans.  This is still one of the worst teams in football. 

Texans (Mediocre Middle):  Are people in Houston finally getting tired of the Bill O’Brien show, or are they accepting the endless barrage of excuses that’s surrounded him during his five season with the team?   Not many coaches this side of Jeff Fisher would still have a job with a 33-36 career record, including a 2-3 disappointment this season.

Pick: Texans 28, Bills 20

ATS: Bills (+10)


Rams (-7.5) @ Broncos

Rams (Title Favorites):  I was certainly skeptical that this conglomeration of big personalities and big-time talent would come together and actually work in Los Angeles.  So far, so good but huge caveat.  The defense, even with Wade Phillips, looks exactly like a group of guys playing on the same field instead of a group of guys playing together.  Let’s see what happens in New Orleans later this season.

Broncos (The Muck):  The Broncos were the beneficiary of a couple home September games that they never lose.  I’m not sure what the long term vision is right now from John Elway, especially looking up at a young, fun Kansas City team in the division.

Pick: Rams 30, Broncos 23

ATS: Broncos (+7.5)


Jaguars (-3) @ Cowboys

Jaguars (Challengers):  Blake Bortles needs to look more like Trent Dilfer and less like Charlie Whitehurst is this team is going to have a chance to compete in the AFC.  That defense is too good for them to slip beyond the Challengers Pillar, but all of the naysayers who said Bortles will keep them from a Super Bowl title may be right.

Cowboys (Mediocre Middle):  I was having a conversation with a fiend the other day about Jason Garrett.  My friend didn’t believe Jason Garrett would be fired, no matter what happens with the Cowboys this season.  I initially disagreed, then realized Jerry Jones is entering the Al Davis, I-don’t-give-a-rip, phase of his ownership tenure.  It’s all about control, and less about success for Jones.

Pick: Jaguars 24, Cowboys 17

ATS: Jaguars (-3)


Ravens (-2.5) @ Titans

Ravens (Challengers):  The Ravens’ point differential (+55) suggests they should be in the Challengers tier.  They have a chance to prove me right this week on the road in what could turn out to be a critical in-conference game with Wild-Card playoff implications.

Titans (Mediocre Middle):  The Titans is challenging Arizona and Buffalo for the most inept unit in the league.  Their defense can only do so much.

Pick: Ravens 24, Titans 20

ATS: Ravens (-2.5)


Chiefs @ Patriots (-3.5)

Chiefs (Title Favorites):  The Chiefs slide in around the Title Favorites Pillar on the back of exceptional play from first year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and predictable regular season brilliance from head coach Andy Reid.  A huge concern remains the yardage disparity, as Kansas City is being outgained by nearly 60 yards per game by their opponents.

Patriots (Title Favorites):  The Patriots have a chance to re-establish themselves at the clear favorites in the AFC with a win on Sunday night.  A loss would leave them with losses to the Chiefs and Jaguars, two expected conference contenders, and lots of question marks moving forward.

Pick: Patriots 34, Chiefs 28

ATS: Patriots (-3.5)


49ers @ Packers (-9.5)

49ers (The Muck):  Yikes.  Injuries have decimated a trendy pre-season NFC dark horse.  Nobody is talking about Kyle Shanahan as one of the league’s cool whiz kids anymore.  I never thought he should be in that conversation anyways (see his work in the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl). 

Packers (Challengers):  Is Mike McCarthy to blame for the Packers’ struggles in the Aaron Rodgers Era?  The team has made only one Super Bowl in that span, a feat rivaled only by Drew Brees failing to win an league MVP award in his career.  Their 2018 contention hopes now hang by a thread after their road loss to the Lions.

Pick: Packers 27, 49ers 17

ATS: Packers (-9.5)


Saints BYE (Title Favorites Pillar):  The Saints once again have the league’s most feared offense backed by a young, disruptive defense.  They are the clear challenger to the Rams in the NFC, and quarterback Drew Brees should be the early front-runner for league MVP.

Lions BYE (Mediocre Middle):  The Lions saved their chances at playoff contention with a critical home win over the Packers last week.  Like the Seahawks, they have a chance to grab one of the Wild Card berths if they get to 9 or 10 wins this year in a surprsingly wide open playoff race in the conference.


Last week’s picks


Last week straight up:  12-4



Last week against the spread:  9-5-1

SEASON ATS:  24-26-1


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