Insiders predict: upsets, flops, NFC South race, more

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Our NFL Insiders predict Week 8‘s biggest upsets, fantasy flops and sleepers. Plus: Who will win the NFC South? Are the Chargers or Dolphins serious challengers in the AFC? What would be the best sign of progress for the Browns?


What’s your top upset pick for Week 8?

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Dolphins over Ravens. I’ll take Miami on the road. On a short week, look for Adam Gase to lead with Jay Ajayi in this one. Through seven weeks, this Baltimore defense is giving up an average of 145.3 yards rushing per game. That’s dead last in the NFL. Don’t make this complicated: Run the ball, play defense, and get out of town with a win.

Dan Graziano, NFL writer: Texans over Seahawks. Look, I’m all about the Panthers and Dolphins as underdogs this week against Tampa Bay and Baltimore teams that look terrible. But because I don’t think either of those would qualify as a major upset, I’m looking to Seattle, where Deshaun Watson & Co. are coming off a bye and face a team whose offense can’t seem to get going until the middle of the third quarter most weeks (if at all). There’s still something not right about Seattle, and the injuries on defense — yes, I know Houston has those too — could be enough for the Texans to squeak this out.

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Panthers over Buccaneers. I’m not sure how a 2-4 Bucs team is favored over a 4-3 Panthers team, even if the game is in Tampa Bay. This week, the Bucs passed the Patriots as the worst defense in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings.

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Raiders over Bills. Oakland has the offensive talent to outscore Buffalo on the road. The Raiders cannot be trusted entirely at this point, but their offense did come to life against Kansas City. Having extra days to prepare following a Thursday night game should help.

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Panthers over Buccaneers. A team with a superior record to its opponent’s isn’t classified as a major upset, but I’ll take the 4-3 Panthers over the 2-4 Buccaneers in Tampa. It has been a yo-yo season for the Panthers’ offense, but the Bucs have been among the most generous defenses in football this season, as one of just three teams to surrender more than 400 yards of total offense per game. Look for Carolina to get back on track.

The Falcons and Bucs have lost three straight. The Panthers have lost two straight. The Saints, meanwhile, have won four in a row. Who will win the NFC South?

Bowen: Saints. That defense was gashed the first two weeks of the season, but the young secondary has developed quickly with game reps. On offense, coach Sean Payton is using that versatile combo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara at running back to complement Drew Brees and one of the best scripted passing attacks in the NFL. Given the issues we see with the Atlanta offense, the up-and-down season of Cam Newton and the sporadic play of the Bucs, I like the Saints to end up on top in the South.

Graziano: Panthers. As much fun as the Saints’ improved defense has been as an early-season storyline, I like Carolina’s defense as a better bet to sustain itself through the season. The Panthers have had three games this season in which they haven’t allowed an offensive touchdown. Of course, they also have had two in which they didn’t score an offensive touchdown. But the offensive consistency should improve once they find a running game, which could be as simple as feeding the ball to Christian McCaffrey between the tackles a little bit.

Schatz: Saints. I picked Carolina before the season, and I still think the Panthers have a good shot at a wild card. But I have to switch to the Saints because New Orleans has found something approximating an NFL defense. The defense is 15th in DVOA right now, and even if it isn’t that good the rest of the season, anything better than what the Saints had the past couple of seasons should be good enough for Brees to carry the team to the playoffs. The Saints’ remaining schedule also ranks 26th in average DVOA of opponent, the easiest of the four NFC South teams.

Sando: Falcons. I’m not changing my preseason pick every few weeks based on which team is playing the best at the time. Although New Orleans looks like the best team and a great bet right now — the Saints are 4-2 after playing the NFL’s toughest schedule by 2017 win percentages — I’ll stick with the Falcons and trust that they’ll improve. They’re one game behind New Orleans in the NFC South race, with both games against the Saints coming much later in the season. This isn’t doubling down. It’s more like checking with a pair of nines.

Yates: Saints. I’ll go with New Orleans and take this moment to highlight just how strong the 2017 draft class already is for the Saints. Kamara is a star out of the backfield, cornerback Marshon Lattimore has rapidly emerged as a top end player, safety Marcus Williams is a rangy playmaker with plenty of upside, and lineman Ryan Ramczyk has been a rock-solid plug-and-play starter. Kudos to the Saints for infusing the roster with young talent. This team is here to stay.

Who is your pick to be the biggest fantasy flop this weekend?

Bowen: Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions. Stafford was noticeably banged up heading into the bye week, and his top target, Golden Tate, is unlikely to dress with an injury. On top of that, the Steelers’ defense has quietly been one of the league’s best in fantasy scoring versus quarterbacks. As we head into Week 8, Pittsburgh ranks second overall, allowing only 9.9 fantasy points per game to opposing QBs.

Graziano: Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs. The Broncos are allowing a league-low 3.0 rushing yards per attempt and a second-best 71.8 rushing yards per game. You’re starting Hunt, the league’s rushing leader, no matter what. But don’t be surprised if this is the week he gets passed at the top of that list by Le’Veon Bell.

Schatz: Derek Carr, QB and Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders. Buffalo has one of the best pass defenses in the league this season, even after giving up 27 points to Tampa Bay, and the Raiders will be playing one of those 10 a.m. Pacific Time starts on the East Coast. I would shy away from both Carr and Cooper.

Sando: Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers. Hyde should have a rough time against the Eagles’ defensive front, especially if Philadelphia builds a lead.

Yates: Latavius Murray, RB, Vikings. After a 100-plus-yard effort in Week 7, some might be intrigued by Murray. My pessimism in Murray isn’t tied to his role, as he has seen enough opportunities since Dalvin Cook‘s injury to be on the radar, but rather has to do with his matchup. The Browns have been terrific against opposing running backs. Le’Veon Bell was kept in check (10 rushes for 32 yards), as were DeMarco Murray (18 rushes for 59 yards) and Joe Mixon (17 rushes for 29 yards). The strength of Cleveland’s roster is in stopping the run, which gives me pause on Murray.

Are you buying or selling the Chargers or Dolphins, who have each won three straight, as serious challengers in the AFC?

Bowen: With Philip Rivers and the pass rush, the Chargers can stay in the mix in the AFC West. In Miami, don’t be surprised if Adam Gase’s system facilitates even more production than we expected with Matt Moore running the show.

Graziano: I had the Chargers as bounce-back contenders in the preseason, and even though they were awful out of the gate, it’s clear that the Broncos and Raiders aren’t without their flaws. The Chargers still have the AFC West’s best quarterback — all due respect to Alex Smith’s hot start and Derek Carr’s ascendant talent — and that still means something.

Schatz: With all the parity in the league, the Chargers are absolutely in the wild-card race at 3-4. They have a strong pass rush, and the passing game has improved since the decision to let Hunter Henry take over for Antonio Gates. Three of the Chargers’ four losses came by a field goal or less. The Dolphins have the better record at 4-2, but notice that all of their wins have come by less than a touchdown, while their two losses were significant. They also have one of the five toughest remaining schedules in the league, according to average DVOA of opponent. Miami will come back to earth.

Sando: Neither should be a serious challenger in the AFC because New England, Pittsburgh and Kansas City are much better, and other teams such as Oakland have a shot at joining those ranks. The Dolphins and/or Chargers could hang around and earn a wild-card playoff berth. The Dolphins are interesting because they’ve been able to win games without playing well offensively. However, they aren’t suddenly going to have a playoff quarterback.

Yates: I’m buying both as contenders to make the playoffs, acknowledging that the Chargers’ margin for error is slim. The AFC West has four teams capable of beating each other on any given Sunday, as the Raiders are reinvigorated after a Week 7 win over the Chiefs. The Chargers play three of their next four games on the road, but this team has significant talent (Los Angeles boasts quite the duo of pass-rushers) and should have a supply of confidence after three straight wins. Miami has shown mettle that isn’t exactly quantifiable but is apparent when you see it. To be 4-2 given all the uncommon circumstances the Dolphins have dealt with this season is truly impressive.

Pick a fringe fantasy player who should be started in Week 8.

Bowen: Josh Doctson, WR, Redskins. I’ll take a flier here on Doctson, who got the start over Terrelle Pryor Sr. on Monday night. Doctson caught three of five targets in that game, and it’s obvious that the Redskins want to increase his workload in the offense. With great body control at the point of attack and red zone ability, Doctson could surprise this Sunday against a Cowboys defense giving up an average of 36.6 points per game to opposing receivers (27th in the NFL).

Graziano: Trevor Siemian, QB, Broncos. I know, I know. The Broncos haven’t done anything on offense. But the Chiefs are allowing the fourth-most fantasy points to quarterbacks, Denver is going to have to throw, and Siemian has looked all right in prime-time showcases in the past. If injuries and/or bye weeks have you in a bind at quarterback, you could do worse than a flier on Siemian.

Schatz: Paul Richardson, WR, Seahawks. Houston is 12th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers but 31st against No. 2 receivers. We could finally get that Richardson breakout game.

Sando: Tyler Kroft, TE, Bengals. Kroft looks like a strong play against the Colts, whose defense took another hit with safety Malik Hooker‘s injury.

Yates: Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals. This is a matchup-driven selection, as Dalton has had an up-and-down season that included a two-touchdown, two-interception effort against the Steelers last week. But Indianapolis entered Week 7 surrendering the fourth-most points per game to opposing quarterbacks (19.7) and then saw Blake Bortles rack up 330 passing yards on just 26 attempts, an average of 12.7 yards per attempt. Promising rookie Malik Hooker — a top player in the Indy secondary — is now out for the season after suffering a knee injury last week, and that leaves the Colts even more susceptible to big plays. Expect Dalton to have his way Sunday.

The Browns are 0-7 and now have to go to London to play the Vikings. Fill in the blank: Progress before Cleveland heads into its bye would be _________________.

Bowen: Settling on a quarterback. It’s almost impossible to build an offensive identity and sell leadership at the position when the head coach continues to flip guys in and out. This is on Hue Jackson to name a starter and stick with him so the Browns can try to generate some consistency throughout the building.

Graziano: Getting through the game with one quarterback. Not trying to be sarcastic here, but it’s one thing to be a team that can’t win. It’s another to be a team that can’t stick to a coherent plan or vision. Jackson is supposed to be the guiding hand whose plan and upbeat attitude keep the building together. Although it’s hard to blame him for flailing, flailing doesn’t send the best message. Find a guy who can play QB for a couple of weeks while things settle down a bit. I’m thinking it’s Kessler.

Schatz: Cutting Kenny Britt or getting a breakout game from him. The analytics case for signing Britt this offseason was solid, but you have to do your due diligence on player psychology as well. Whatever sign would’ve shown the Browns that Britt was going to dog it once he signed his next big contract, the Browns missed it. They either need him to have a big day to show the kids that even the screwy veteran has decided to get with the program, or they need to cut him to show the kids that if you don’t get with the program, you aren’t going to be on the team anymore.

Sando: Winning a game. The Browns are not going to settle their long-term quarterback situation before the bye. However, they did nearly pull off an upset against the Titans. They will be overmatched against the Vikings, which means they probably will need multiple turnovers to pull off an upset. But what other worthwhile goal can be accomplished this week?

Yates: Committing to a quarterback and allowing that player to grow through positives and negatives. Although the Browns likely don’t have the long-term quarterback answer on their roster right now, the team must at least afford itself the chance to evaluate these players more comprehensively. Hastily executed quarterback decisions have defined this season so far. It’s time to pick one and let him play.

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