“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West” sang Robert Plant on Stairway to Heaven, a line borrowed by (then) literary wunderkind Bret Easton Ellis at the start of his debut novel about nihilistic teenagers in California, Less Than Zero.
It’s a line that’s front and centre in my thinking right now, with the NFC West undoubtedly the best in show in the league, not least because a resurgent LA Rams can establish themselves as the major threat to the current Super Bowl champs, and bookies favourites the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a big performance against them this Sunday.
NFL Week Three predictions: Rams vs Buccaneers
Matthew Stafford’s heading west to Los Angeles, hooking up with offensive genius Sean McVay (like Easton Ellis, a prolific achiever at a remarkably young age) was one of the most eagerly anticipated storylines ahead of the 2021 season, and so far, it’s lived up to the hype.
There’s a sense that both men needed each other to progress. Stafford is a former number one overall draft pick, who suffered for years in the wilderness in Detroit, the NFL equivalent of casting Matthew McConaughey in Hollyoaks. Occasional flashes of team success rarely did justice to his undoubted individual talent, but with the trade, which cost LA a lot of future draft capital, he was finally playing for a contender, an organisation where he could secure his very first playoff win, and possibly a whole lot more.
McVay, whose mojo waned after an electrifying run during the 2018 season fizzled out with an anodyne display, and ultimately defeat in Super Bowl LIII, was becoming increasingly frustrated with the limitations of his quarterback Jared Goff, and his inability to deliver on the potential of his coach’s offensive stylings. Think the last phase of Lionel Messi’s time in Barcelona, and how he felt when Martin Braithwate was announced as their new signing.
On my podcast this week, I referenced the coming together of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, and specifically the symmetry of timing, where a coach who’d built and developed an offensive philosophy over years, using certain players (Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb) to move it forwards, had finally found the ultimate athlete to execute his vision.
A similar thing has happened in LA, with Stafford, due to his arm strength, experience, speed of thought and instinct enabling a more expansive and varied offense. His connection with Goff’s former go-to-guy Cooper Kupp is a revelation, the pair linking up for 3TD’s in the Rams first two games, and explosive scores too. The Goff/Mcvay era relied heavily on a successful run game, led by Todd Gurley. With Stafford under center, there’s a different dynamic. Out of 757 total offensive yards, only 175 of those have been on the ground, which in part due to an injury sustained by leading rusher Cam Akers, but significantly down to the range the Rams new QB brings, which means McVay can dial up an altogether different approach.
Tom Brady has won 34 playoff games, and based on the Bucs early season showing, he’ll be adding to that tally post season. Like the Rams, the Bucs haven’t gone to the ground much – 134 total yards on the ground is the second lowest in the league – for similar reasons: Tampa Bay’s passing offense is humming once again. His impressive line will face a stern test against the Rams Aaron Donald & Leonard Floyd, and LA will aim to replicate their blueprint from last season, where they managed to generate pressure up the middle of the line and knock Brady off his stride.
This is typically the key to beating the most successful quarterback the game has ever seen. Brady’s movement and speed of thought allow him to buy time with a step forward in the pocket if pressure is coming from either side. From up the middle of the line, this becomes harder for him to execute. Interestingly, as per PFF, Brady has the second-fastest release of any quarterback this season. So even if the Rams front seven can cause problems, they may not be given enough time to do real damage.
NFL Week Three predictions: Raiders vs Dolphins
The Raiders, for many the surprise package of the season so far, aim to improve to 3-0 against a banged-up Miami side, also raising eyebrows for all the wrong reasons. Like the Rams, Las Vegas has been airing it out, much to the delight of Raider Nation. Parallels abound; as with LA, the Vegas ground game has been affected by injury to their star running back Josh Jacobs, and they average a league low 2.9 yards per carry. Not that it’s held them back. Carr, a much-maligned figure in recent years, has been red hot, passing for a league-leading 782 yards, with a receiving corp that’s intriguing, but by no means the strongest in the league.
Tight end Darren Waller is one of the best in his position, and thrives against man coverage, which Miami tend to favour defensively. The Fins will have to contend without their sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa ruled out with a rib injury, veteran Jacoby Brissett deputising. Cynics, and Tua-nonbelievers, will argue that won’t make much of a difference, and possibly represent an upgrade, but Miami, off the back of their humiliating shut out against the Bills last week, face the very real possibility of an 0-3 start.
NFL 2021 Week Three predictions: 49ers vs Packers
The Jimmy Garoppolo for Comeback Player of the Year campaign has hit the skids after just two weeks, with San Francisco’s grinding out a 17-11 win against Philly that was the equivalent of a 1-0 victory on the road on a rainy Tuesday night in Bolton. Improbably, the 49ers, who had so many injuries last year that coach Kyle Shanahan must have wondered whether he was trapped in a Wanda Vision style fictional dimension, are banged up again, and have so many running backs out, that they’re road-testing veteran free agents like TJ Yeldon and Lamar Miller. It’s a strange netherworld that out-of-work vets inhabit. Keeping as fit as they can, waiting for the phone to ring, not wishing injury on any of their fellow pros’ but deep down knowing their own livelihood depends on it. San Francisco meet Green Bay in Sunday night football. They’ll be more clamouring for rookie Trey Lance to step in if Jimmy G flatters to deceive.
The Packers are back to .500 after their bounceback win against the Lions, which saw Aaron Rodgers land some vintage strikes, helped by Davante Adams, the Scottie Pippen to his Jordan. Such is the instant gratification (or vilification) with life in the NFL that if the Packers win against a major conference rival, their Super Bowl creds will be getting talked up, but if they lose, and it’s an abject defeat to go with the season opener against New Orleans, all the talk will be of the end of an era. If Stafford’s success in LA is one of the surest things in the league right now, Rodgers in Green Bay is one of the most compelling.
Nat correctly picked 12 winners from his 15 Week Two selections, check out his predictions for the Week Three matchups below.
|NFL Week Three Predictions|
|Nat’s selections in bold | UK kickoff times|
|Friday, 24 September|
|Houston Texans vs Carolina Panthers, 1:20AM|
|Sunday, 26 September|
|Kansas City Chiefs vs Los Angeles Chargers, 6:00PM|
|Jacksonville Jaguars vs Arizona Cardinals, 6:00PM|
|Cleveland Browns vs Chicago Bears, 6:00PM|
|Buffalo Bills vs Washington Football Team, 6:00PM|
|Tennessee Titans vs Indianapolis Colts, 6:00PM|
|New England Patriots vs New Orleans Saints, 6:00PM|
|New York Giants vs Atlanta Falcons, 6:00PM|
|Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cincinnati Bengals, 6:00PM|
|Detroit Lions vs Baltimore Ravens, 6:00PM|
|Denver Broncos vs New York Jets, 9:05PM|
|Las Vegas Raiders vs Miami Dolphins, 9:05PM|
|Los Angeles Rams vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9:25PM|
|Minnesota Vikings vs Seattle Seahawks, 9:25PM|
|Monday, 27 September|
|San Francisco 49ers vs Green Bay Packers, 1:20AM|
|Tuesday, 28 September|
|Dallas Cowboys vs Philadelphia Eagles, 1:15AM|
|16-fold @ 579/1 with Betfair (Mobile)|
|16-fold @ 579/1 with Betfair (Desktop)|
|Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.