The NFL is back at Wembley, and it could be the shootout everyone's been waiting for.
At least it looked that way before the season, but two things have happened since then. Atlanta's suffered a rash of crippling injuries, especially on defense, but they've also been unable to get their offense untracked, with a line that is underperforming and no real replacement for Tony Gonzalez, the best pass-catching tight end of his era.
Meanwhile the Lions, under new head coach Jim Caldwell and new coordinators on both sides of the ball, have developed a personality totally different from the Jim Schwartz years. Although Schwartz was a defensive specialist, his defenses played with a lack of discipline, and his Lions' team had to win games in shootouts or not at all. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has come from the Ravens (where Caldwell coached) and installed a great deal of defensive discipline, helped by the addition of two safeties, James Ihedigbo (who also came from Baltimore) and Glover Quin, who've played like they've been together for years.
Both teams lost their excellent middle linebackers in preseason, but because of the quality play at safety, the Lions have found it easier to replace Stephen Tulloch than Atlanta has replacing Sean Witherspoon. They've been holding opponents to an average of 15 points per game, while scoring only 20. The new offense, coached by former Saints' coach Joe Lombardi, is geared more to keeping possession than big gains, but they've also played without Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson for much of the season.
In fact, Johnson is questionable with an ankle injury, and may be allowed to rest it this week and through next week's bye, which would rob the fans of the classic match-up between him and Atlanta's Julio Jones, two big receivers with inordinate quickness for their size, from arch-rival colleges. It's why I might take the under (46.5 at 1.94) anticipating something other than a shootout.
BEST BET: DETROIT (-3.5 at 1.88) 'at' Atlanta at Wembley: I've pretty much drawn up the scenario above, the only caveat being that 3.5, since Detroit have had huge problems with kickers so far this season. The current candidate is Matt Prater, who you may remember booming 50 yarders in the thin air of Denver. But times have changed since then.
VALUE BET: NEW YORK JETS (-3 at 2.00) vs Buffalo. The Bills have lost their two best runners, and the ‘Jest’ have played pretty well in a couple of losses lately. The addition of Percy Harvin is meant to provide Rex Ryan with a big play or two, and maybe the scores that will give him a lead and let his offense go to town. The Jest have a habit of beating Buffalo in strange ways, and frankly, any win right now would be strange. But at home, this could be the week.
OUTSIDE BET: DALLAS (-10 AT 1.92) VS Washington. Robert Griffin? Colt McCoy? Kirk Cousins? Who plays quarterback for Washington? Does it matter? The first two are Texans who might relish the homecoming feel, but would that matter either. Nine and a half is a big spread, but the Cowboys ought to be able to cover. If you think that's too risky consider GREEN BAY (+1.5 at 1.95) at New Orleans, since the Saints have struggled and the Packers are in great form, but the game is in the New Orleans Super Dome or TAMPA BAY (-3 AT 2.00) vs Minnesota. The Bucs have been awful, but they're coming off the bye week and the Vikings are not Vince Lombardi's Packers. I like PHILADELPHIA (+2.5 AT 2.02) at Arizona, but I'd like them more with more than a field goal, given how well the Cardinals' D has played.
ONE TO AVOID: I was tempted by SEATTLE (-5 at 1.96) at Carolina. Last year the Panthers almost won this same matchup, and like this year, they looked beaten up before the game. The Seahawks have played recently like they expect Russell Wilson to be Cam Newton; if they can get back to their other options they can win this one. IF! And they might not win it by much.