The National Football League will conclude their first week of regular season play tonight with a pair of Monday Night Football contests. The action begins in New Jersey when the New York Giants host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game set to begin at 4:15 p.m. Pacific Time. The second game on tonight’s schedule, the Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos, kicks off at 7:10 p.m.
The Giants contest marks the debut of Joe Judge, who is the fourth head coach the Giants have hired since Tom Coughlin left after the 2015 season. None of the previous three have ended their short terms with a winning record. The Giants have also turned the page at quarterback, where long time starter and two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning lost his starting job last year to Daniel Jones and retired after the season.
While the Giants are looking to begin anew, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in search of regaining their championship form with the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The future Hall of Fame signal caller was lost early in last year’s campaign and that was one of the major reasons why the Steelers, who for years earned a playoff spot almost as routinely as Santa Claus shows up on Christmas, were home last season when the postseason kicked off.
But it wasn’t the only reason the Steelers greatness might be in the rearview mirror. A few years ago, when the Steelers were last a threat to win it all, they had a trio of players that struck fear in opposing defenses. In addition to Big Ben, Pittsburgh featured two of the league’s best at their positions, runningback Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Anotnio Brown.
In 2018, Bell negotiated with the Steelers like a divorcing couple battling over disputes with lawyers. The year-long argument looked like an episode of one of those housewives of some city made for television shows. In the end, Bell skipped the entire 2018 season, while the Steelers suffered one of their few years without a playoff berth, and then took his talents to the New York Jets, where he has had as much success as me trying to dunk over LeBron James.
In his return to the gridiron last season, Bell recorded a career low 789 rushing yards with the Jets and was injured in yesterday’s loss to the Buffalo Bills after carrying the ball six times for 14 yards. The only thing Bell has won in three years is his paycheck from the Jets.
The Steelers loss of Antonio Brown is another story, and one more suited for a psychology journal than a sports page. Anyone paying attention, could see Brown had some serious issues before the Oakland Raiders bailed him out with a trade that sent more than he was worth to the Steelers. His time in the Raiders organization was all tied to off the field battles which ended with him celebrating that the team willing to give him a chance had given him his release.
How did that work out?
Well, the New England Patriots, who were short a deep threat to compliment the skills of quarterback Tom Brady, took a chance on him and while not having to pay the price of a trade, like the Raiders did, soon learned he had more liabilities than a house in foreclosure. In his first week with New England, Brown was suspended by the league and the Patriots organization then cut their brief ties with the troubled receiver.
Okay, Bell and Brown are gone, and Roethlisberger is back, where does that leave the Steelers? We’ll know more after seeing them in action against the Giants, but for sure does not warrant laying a bloated six point spread with them in tonight’s Monday night opener.
In the second game, we find the Tennessee Titans favored at Mile High Stadium by a field goal or more. Last year, the Titans were struggling at mid-season behind their one time second pick in the draft, quarterback Marcus Mariota. Then, head coach Mike Vrabel turned to longtime Miami Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill to breathe life into his struggling offense.
Like a magician revealing his next trick with pride and surprise, the Vrabel decision turned the Titans into statistically the best team in football over the second half of the 2019 season. Tannehill guided Tennessee from the middle of the pack to a playoff berth that began with an upset win over the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. As it turned out, the Titans run to glory also ended in a loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
The Titans were just that close to perhaps winning the Super Bowl last season. They held a second half lead over the Chiefs in the championship game last January, before Kansas City did what they did to all their postseason competition in their first Super Bowl winning season in 50 years. They overcame a double-digit deficit to win going away.
But, with their glorious run to the playoffs and pair of postseason wins last season, the Titans come into this year with more confidence … well, a lot more confidence than my charts show they should actually have.
Here is an interesting stat. A team that wins three games or more to close out a regular season and fails to make the playoffs has a worse won/loss record the following year more than 80% of the time. Why? Because a team that builds confidence with wins that don’t equal a playoff berth is two things, first, confident they can build on that success and second, not tested in real do or die with something at stake situations.
One of the most recent examples of this rule was the San Francisco 49ers, who closed out the 2017 season with five straight wins after the insertion of Jimmy Garappolo at quarterback. The 49ers opened 2018 with Super Bowl aspirations, and won only four games that season. Then, with less lofty expectations entering the 2019 season, they won the NFC and carried a lead into the fourth quarter against Kansas City last February.
Here is my point. The Titans did make the playoffs as a Wild Card entrant last year after Tannehill carried them with his sudden sterling play, something he seldom displayed during eight seasons as the starter in Miami. Now, with confidence, Tennessee opens as a bet-on road favorite with a point spread that opened with them as a slight underdog and has grown to three points or more.
The buzz around this game is that the Denver Broncos are missing their top defensive player with the injury to Von Miller, and the Titans are ready to build on last season’s late success.
While the Broncos will be without Miller, they do get back another defensive stud with the return of Bradley Chubb, who was lost last year to an ACL tear. They have also added Melvin Gordon to their backfield and drafted talented wide receiver Jerry Jeudy as a key target for quarterback Drew Lock.
The Broncos had been in search of a quarterback since the retirement of Peyton Manning. For years they looked like a team searching for Easter eggs in October during their quest for a new signal caller. Then, almost by luck and chance, Denver ended up with Lock behind center. He comes into this season with no over-hyped expectations but with a 4-1 record as the Broncos starter.
So, what do we have here?
We’ve got a Titans team with sky high expectations and public backing and a Broncos squad at home getting points thanks to the opinion of the betting public.
Let me see, what do I want tonight? The motivated team at home with a bloated point spread or the overconfident road team giving too many points?
Thinking, thinking … give me the winner.
Qoxhi Picks: Denver Broncos (+3) over Tennessee Titans