As if this season weren't frustrating enough, kickers seem to have gone into some kind of funk which makes even the smallest spreads more unpredictable than ever. I say 'seems' because the actual percentage of kicks being made is just slightly less than last season, and just slightly ahead of 2013, in other words, business as usual. But what may be happening is more teams being concerned with kickoff distance, or with salary cap, and knowing most kickers experience good and less good seasons, thinking they can get away with the rookie or free agent who looks like a boomer in camp.
Then the season starts and every kick becomes crucial. It doesn't help that we now consider virtually every kick, even beyond 50 yards, as a gimme, and kickers face the sack with almost every miss. Field goals are not automatic, and this season, neither are extra points. A number of ex-kickers (perhaps auditioning for a return) have opined that the new longer extra points have changed the game for kickers, taking away their virtually painless 'warmup' kicks, but that doesn't account for the Chiefs' Cairo Santos going seven for seven on figgies last week, without even trying an XP.
One interesting theory is that the Steelers losing two veteran kickers to injury in preseason has depressed the available free-agent market, another is that the difference in pressure between NCAA and NFL games is proving something that requires more adjustment than in the past. Mostly, however, I think it's a question of small sample size, high expectation, and a brief perfect storm of kickers needing to get back to the driving range.
BEST BET: CINCINNATI (-3 at 1.92) v Seattle: The Bengals are, I think, for real, and the only worry here is if the Seahawks' defense, which has got its mojo back with the return of Kam Chancellor, can worry Andy Dalton into mistakes. I'm not convinced Dalton has turned some kind of corner as much as Hue Jackson appears to have simplified his half-field reads, he's got multiple weapons (especially with Tyler Eifert healthy and AJ Green continuing to be AJ) and certainly the best offensive line this side of Dallas.
But what gives me confidence in the Bengals is their D, which has been playing very well and pressuring quarterbacks; the Seahawks offense has been based on Marshawn Lynch in beast mode and Russell Wilson scrambling to create big plays out of potential sacks—he's this century's equivalent of Fran Tarkenton. Lynch will likely play, at least a bit, and though Thomas Rawls has beastly elements to his game, they need the original. At home, I like the Bengals.
VALUE BET: ATLANTA (-7.5 at 2.08) V Washington: To be frank, this would be my best bet of the week, but it's also a great value, and if you're a worry wart you might see the touchdown plus line as taking it away from best bet status. The Falcons are playing very well right now. Offensively, Kyle Shanahan's run schemes have made Devonta Freeman look right at home, and Matt Ryan's the kind of QB who can thrive when the run game is working, and make plays when it's not, especially to Julio Jones. Defensively, Dan Quinn has rebuilt the defense with a combination of new talent and shrewd rotation of existing players, which also maximizes their strengths. I like that he's been able to make the most of the talent he inherited, something Jay Gruden has notably not been able to do.
OUTSIDE BET: TENNESSEE (+2.5 at 1.87) v Buffalo: I like a home team getting points, especially when they are coming off a bye week, rested and ready, and against a team that is increasingly hard to figure out. Rex Ryan's charges ran up 17 penalties last week in a home loss to the Giants, and Rex said he was 'proud of the way they played'. Titans' rookie QB Marcus Mariota will probably see blitz packages from Rex the likes of which he's never seen before, but increasingly this year it looks like Buffalo want their front to do the pass-rush work, and play more people back in coverage. If Mariota can figure that stuff out, I think the Titans can win, so although 2.5 is really nothing much, at home I'd risk something on them. NEW ENGLAND is giving the Cowboys 8.5, at 1.96, which is really just a TD, so that's pretty tempting too.