As you surely have heard, the regular officials are back. You might wonder how their return will change the way I handicap NFL games.
Here is my answer:
My handicapping focuses on players and matchups. I didn't worry much about how the replacement referees would affect games because I couldn't quantify how their presence would affect the games. Some handicappers might have found a replacement-ref angle or two that worked well; kudos to them.
Handicappers have to focus on what they know best. I start with personnel and work from there as I decide what side to pick. Officiating isn't something I've ever focused upon in the handicapping process.
It's not changing this week.
Here are my Week Four picks:
San Francisco (-4) at N.Y. Jets
I don't see the appeal of the 49ers at this price and in this spot. I just don't. They were outgained 344-280 and never led in a 24-13 loss at Minnesota in Week Three. Now, the Niners are playing their second road game in as many weeks and face a Jets squad that is perhaps its most dangerous when it is being dismissed.
Certainly, no one's as high on the Jets now as they were a week ago, even after a win at Miami improved their record to 2-1. Such is the effect of the season-ending injury to CB Darrelle Revis, a true difference maker.
However, even without Revis, the Jets can be competitive with San Francisco. Revis' absence could loom large against strong passing games, but I believe they can get by without him in this matchup.
The Jets have been home underdogs three times in Rex Ryan's tenure: twice vs. New England (2009, '10) and once vs. San Diego ('11). They won and covered all three times. The Jets can give the Niners a tough game.
Wilkening's pick: N.Y. Jets
Cincinnati (-2½) at Jacksonville
Neither one of these defenses is playing well; in fact, the Bengals have been worse, allowing 10 defensive TDs compared to the Jaguars' seven and more yards per play (6.44, compared to 5.73).
So why am I siding with Cincinnati? Two reasons. One, the Bengals' offense is much stronger than the Jaguars' attack, owing to their major edge in the passing game. Two, the Bengals' defense has the potential to improve, with its fierce pass rush its best attribute.
This just does not look like an ideal matchup for the Jaguars. Any improvement from the Bengals will make them tough to beat. Recall that Cincinnati won 30-20 at Jacksonville a season ago.
Wilkening's pick: Cincinnati
Seattle (-2½) at St. Louis
I have great respect for the Seahawks' defense, and I do not see the Rams' offense having an easy go of it on Sunday. It's entirely possible that Seattle grinds out its third consecutive win.
Nevertheless, I believe this is just the time for St. Louis to be catching Seattle. The Seahawks are coming off an emotional Monday-night win, and now they have to play a road contest with a 10 a.m. Pacific time kickoff.
The Rams are improved. They were competitive in losses at Detroit and Chicago, and they notched a nice home upset of Washington two week ago. The Rams' defense is their greatest strength, with CB Cortland Finnegan making a big difference.
The Rams might be a little underrated, and asking the Seahawks to deliver a top effort six days after one of the wildest finishes in memory might be a little too much. I'll take the points.
Wilkening's pick: St. Louis
Carolina (+7) at Atlanta
Considering their current form, and considering the Panthers' struggles, the Falcons appeal at this price. Atlanta, which won and covered in both meetings with Carolina in 2011, looks stronger on both sides of the ball than it was a season ago.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have stumbled early this season. Their offense has sometimes lacked punch, and their ability to get stops against quality competition remains a major concern.
Could the Panthers deliver an improved performance after a 10-day break between games? Perhaps, but I'm not sold. If the Panthers couldn't handle the Falcons in 2011, I have to wonder how they will fare in their first meeting with a new-and-improved Atlanta squad in the Georgia Dome. The more I thought about this matchup, the more I warmed to the Falcons.
Wilkening's pick: Atlanta
Last week: 3-1
Season to date: 8-3-1