“We’ll know for the first time
If we’re evil or divine
We’re the last in line.” – Dio
After five weeks, the Steelers are still last in line and soul-searching. Given the season-ending injury to WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, in a locker room that’s losing quality starters every week, one wonders if the Steelers have it in them to rebound at all, even in the wake of last week’s win over the mirage-contender Denver Broncos. With each week, the odds get longer for a respectable season in Pittsburgh, where the front office has already posited the need to draft a QB in 2022 to replace the increasingly-broken Ben Roethlisberger, whose list of nagging injuries seems to expand exponentially after every game. Needless to say, losing a reliable target won’t help him at all in 2021, nor will the utter lack of quality depth on the Steelers’ offensive line.
It’s almost like watching a four-months-long snuff film.
Anyway, as usual, these picks are for fun and should in no way be used for actual wagering purposes. That is, unless you want to make a ton of money in a legal forum, because we know more stuff and things about football than you do or something.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens
Sunday, October 17, 1:00 pm, CBS
With both teams sporting identical 4-1 records, this game would be a prime candidate to be flexed into a better time slot if it happened later in the season, so we’ll just have to blame the schedule makers for their shortsightedness. As it is, this game promises lots of offense and little defense, as neither team did much to slow the competition last week until late in their respective games.
Chargers QB Justin Herbert is quickly evolving into one of the better QBs in the NFL, and his penchant for connecting on deep passes can’t be understated. With WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams confounding opposing secondaries with precise crossing routes and RB Austin Ekeler showcasing his all-purpose ability, defenses are hard pressed to find weaknesses in the Chargers’ attack. I suspect the Ravens will return to their blitz-happy ways this week in an effort to rattle Herbert and disrupt Los Angeles’ offensive timing; look for myriad zones in the defensive backfield, as playing man-to-man coverage against the Chargers can be deadly.
With both starting offensive tackles listed as questionable, Baltimore’s offensive success will most likely be dependent on the arm and legs of QB Lamar Jackson again. Fans, critics and pundits alike are all justifiably wondering how long Jackson can maintain his current do-everything pace; he’s far exceeding his previous passing numbers this season, and he appears to have honed his running game enough to augment his passing, making him more of a (gasp!) traditional QB, but lest we need to be reminded, this is unchartered territory for Jackson. Not that the former MVP has anything to prove, but to see him finish with numbers rivaling current MVP Aaron Rodgers would be remarkable for a guy too-often foolishly dismissed as “not being able to throw”. As most teams are focusing on forcing Jackson to pass, four of them have paid the price – in five games. I envision the Chargers doing the same.
Chargers 31, Ravens 34
Cincinnati Bengals @ Detroit Lions
Sunday, October 17, 1:00 pm, Fox
Oh, those plucky Lions. To be fair to Detroit and their maddening tendency to blow late leads, they are playing hardnosed, efficient football, but need to examine such details as proper clock management and untimely penalties. This team isn’t being judged on a standard of futility like previous Detroit teams have been, but needless to say, they have some work to do, and they could stand some personnel upgrades in key areas like QB, where starter Jared Goff continues to scoff at his lofty draft status with ongoing subpar performances. The lone silver lining in Detroit’s winless season may be the real prospect of securing the #1 overall pick in the 2022 draft.
The evolving Bengals are a tough one to figure out. They have the offensive weapons to compete with any team in the NFL, but their inexperience and occasional lack of judgement – witness QB Joe Burrow’s easily-avoided near-concussion outside the pocket last week – have combined to keep this team from reaching elite potential. I suspect this game will be closer than most predict, and I’ll even go so far as to predict a close upset. The Lions play surprisingly solid defense, and that may be the difference in another close, late contest. The Lions can’t lose them all, right?
Bengals 20, Lions 24
Arizona Cardinals @ Cleveland Browns
Sunday, October 17, 4:05 pm, Fox
Oklahoma fans, rejoice in the specter of your last two Heisman winners facing off. Both Browns QB Baker Mayfield and Cardinals QB Kyler Murray are having solid seasons, although Murray has been exceptional in leading his team to their 5-0 start. As both teams have displayed their ability to score almost at will, this game will clearly turn on defense, for whichever club decides to play it better. Barring changes in IR status, the Browns should be lining up both of their pass rushing defensive ends in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, which could pose substantial problems for Murray, as the Browns have no need to blitz when both are in the game, leaving extra coverage to pick up the slack in the secondary.
The Cardinals sport a solid pass rush of their own under normal circumstances with DE J.J. Watt and edge LB Chandler Jones, but Jones will be sidelined for this game due to injury, and Watt has a tendency to disappear for long stretches these days and is more of a rotational player than in years past. Expect the Browns to do what they do – mercilessly run the ball with standout RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, thereby gobbling up time of possession and keeping Murray and excellent WR DeAndre Hopkins off the field.
Cardinals 26, Browns 31
Seattle Seahawks @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, October 17, 8:20 pm, NBC
Seahawks starting QB Russell Wilson has been declared out for the next 4-8 weeks due to a broken finger, and the Steelers couldn’t be happier about it. They’ll face backup QB Geno Smith, who’s received some accolades locally, but remains the same dubious Jets draft pick nearly a decade ago that never delivered on his potential. The Steelers’ defense remains the team’s best hope for success, and they may have quite a bit against Smith and an anemic offensive attack that shows little focus without Wilson’s steady hand.
As mentioned above, the Steelers have a wealth of protection issues due to a subpar offensive line, and there’s little that can be done to rectify that except to play better, which this unit is proving increasingly incapable of. The talent simply isn’t there, nor is it available in free agency. The solution has been to have QB Ben Roethlisberger use no more than three-step dropbacks before delivering the football somewhere, and his options will be further limited with the subtraction of WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. Given the inconsistency of Seattle’s defense this year, I would expect a lot of checkdown passes for RB Najee Harris and TE Pat Freiermuth. It will move the chains if nothing else.
Seahawks 16, Steelers 20