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Hurley's Picks: Titans' COVID Outbreak A Blunt Reminder Of NFL's Volatility In 2020

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- You know, this is going to sound really dumb -- extremely dumb -- but I sorta kinda thought that the NFL had made it through the woods with regard to COVID-19. I really kinda sorta almost maybe a little bit did.

I know that scientifically, having traveling parties of 100 or so people fly around the country and then having a bunch of them smash their faces into each other and hop on top of each other and snuggle up together in huddles and sit together on benches and fly together on cross-country flights ... yeah that's technically a pretty big risk for spreading a virus during a pandemic. We've all been aware of that for some time.

But the NFL has kind of forged ahead with its entire year as though a pandemic wasn't happening -- from free agency to the draft, to the regular season -- and the only things that were canceled were things that didn't impact the average football viewer at home. And after weathering the flurry of positive COVID tests in the summer, the NFL kicked off its season on schedule, and the league made it through another two weeks without an issue.

It seemed like, against all odds, the NFL was pulling off a coast-to-coast tackle football program in the middle of a pandemic.

As we now know, it was indeed too good to be true. Four Titans players and five staff members tested positive this week, and we're all catching a glimpse of what kind of havoc this virus can wreak on the season.

(AN IMPORTANT THING TO SAY: Obviously, the virus impacts society and individuals in far more significant ways than whether or not the Lions can play the Bears this year, but this is a football-centric story and so we're keeping a football-centric scope.)

Fortunately, America has at least learned some things about the coronavirus since March. Unlike when the NBA and NHL shut down their entire leagues in a hurry, the NFL can at least rely on contact tracing to try to identify close contacts who need to quarantine. As a result, the season -- and specifically the seasons of the Titans and the Vikings, who smashed heads with Tennessee just a few short days ago -- is viable.

At the same time, the only reason that there hasn't yet been an outbreak among the Vikings is sheer luck. Or perhaps, enough time has not yet passed for the incubation period to show that indeed, some players have contracted the virus. They'll all be tested rigorously, no doubt. The league will do what it can to try to make this "just that one situation" rather than "the beginning of the end."

The fallout thus far serves as a reminder of just how thin the string is that is holding this entire season together. The Titans and Steelers may play on Monday, or Tuesday. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll make it up. Maybe they won't. Maybe the Vikings will be fine and will play their game against Houston without issue. Maybe they won't.

It does feel like we're back to that point right now, even if NFL teams are doing the only thing that NFL teams know how to do: Go about their business and focus on the task at hand this week.

Hopefully, for the sake of the league and all involved, this turns out to be just one blip on an otherwise successful football season. But the Titans' situation that sprung up out of nowhere sure did provide a blunt reminder that there's a pandemic still raging, and playing tackle football in a pandemic is a monumental challenge, and actually getting through a season requires more hope/optimism/closing-your-eyes-and-wishing-for-the-best than we may have acknowledged for the past few weeks.

For now, though, we've still got picks.

(UPDATE: More Titans tested positive. This week's Titans-Steelers game is postponed until "later in the season." Oh, dear.)

(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)

NEW YORK JETS (+1) over Denver
On second thought ... do we really want an NFL season? Our desire will be put to the test with this showcase.

Humble suggestion: Don't send any professional broadcasters to cover this game. Bring in some angry and sad Jets fans to sit in the booth and loudly and aggressively air their grievances with the football franchise that can't do anything except crush their souls every single year.

Indianapolis (-2.5) over CHICAGO
I've seen a lot of analysts and pundits spew the take that the Bears are perhaps the worst 3-0 team ever assembled. How dare these people. Can you believe 'em?!

The 2020 Bears are merely among the worst 3-0 teams in football history. Sheesh. Show some respect.

Jacksonville (+3) over CINCINNATI
Joe Burrow is a hoot. That's great. I wish him well. I hope for his sake he ends up somewhere other than Cincinnati though.

The Bengals' run defense ranks 31st in the league, which in a league of 32 teams is not spectacular. I'm foreseeing another big day for James Robinson and a game that's just really tough to watch overall.

DALLAS (-4.5) over Cleveland
Scheduling is a cruel beast. On one hand you have the Texans, whose season started with with road games at Kansas City and Pittsburgh and a home date vs. Baltimore. Brutal. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Browns, who have gotten home dates with the Bengals and Washington Football Teamer People Guys after their scheduled loss in Week 1 at Baltimore.

It's why you can't really take the win-loss records too seriously right now. The 2-1 Browns could become the 2-4 Browns real quick.

New Orleans (-4) over DETROIT
Man, the Saints sure are mediocre this year.

Man, the Lions sure wish they were mediocre this year.

This pick is contingent on Michael Thomas playing. If he's out again, then you, dear reader, please flip my pick for me, WOULD YA?

Seattle (-6.5) over MIAMI
The Seahawks will lose this season. Their defense stinks far too much for the losses to not come.

I'm just not sure the Dolphins fit the bill as the team to deliver loss number one. The Dolphins are fun and kind of spunky and oddly confident, and they've come a long way from a year ago, when we'd all refer to them as "arguably the worst team ever assembled."

In fact, I actually kind of think the Dolphins cover this spread. It's the spunk factor.

But going against Russ right now feels like a brainless move. Even a brainless fool like me knows better.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (+7) over Tampa Bay
Question for all you smart people out there: Why are the Buccaneers so boring to watch?!

I entered this year so damn excited to watch the high-flying, high-octane Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I wanted to see a rejuvenated Tom Brady racking up gaudy stats with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Roberto Gronkowski and O.J. Howard.

Instead I'm getting defensive grinds, with the occasional force-feeding of Scottie Miller.

What the heck?

In the last two games, they've scored 15 total points in the second halves. That's an entire football game worth of football, and only two touchdowns to show for it. That's not what we're looking for here, folks.

It's like they're still -- after making what seemed like a franchise-altering move -- the Bucs.

Godwin is out this week, so I have no choice but to forecast another mostly boring, oddly stale, dead-ass second half game from the Bucs.

I want my money back.

The football fellas? They're unfortunately about to feel the wrath of the Ravens coming off an embarrassing loss on national TV. Avert your eyes, fans of the Washington Football Teamer People Guys Who Play Football!

Arizona (-3) over CAROLINA
Do the Panthers have buyer's remorse on Teddy Bridgewater? I would probably have some buyer's remorse on Teddy Bridgewater, who's been accurate but underwhelming thus far. Rushing to guarantee him $40 million remains an odd move in a sea of odd moves.

HOUSTON (-3) over Minnesota
Normally a matchup of two 0-3 teams would be terrible. But this is fantastic!

That's mostly because neither team is supposed to be 0-3. We covered the Texans' brutal schedule, while the Vikings are simply struggling with the indignity of having Kirk Cousins as their quarterback. I kid, somewhat, but Cousins has already matched his interception total from last season. That is not exceptional.

As the Sports Guy™ here, I have to be honest with you: I don't know who's going to win this game. But for the time being, I'll go with the team that had its facility open all week and was able to practice. After all, they say that practice is actually important.

LOS ANGELES RAMS (-12.5) over New York Giants
I picked the Giants last week, because they were playing the 49ers' minor league team.

Never again.

I'd actually be surprised if they get on the airplane. Why bother, you know? Pandemic and all. Maybe just play it safe and stick to home games. Forfeit the rest. Honestly it might help them actually win a game or two.

New England (+7) over KANSAS CITY
This is absolutely my Dumb Idiot Bozo Pick Of The Week, no doubt. The Chiefs on Monday night looked about as frightening as any team has in quite some time. At least for the first half, anyway. The second half Chiefs were pretty bad.

Anyways, while I have no doubt that Andy Reid's three-ring circus on offense will do whatever the heck it wants to do against a Patriots defense that's been susceptible against the pass ... I do think the Patriots have enough firepower to keep things interesting by running the hell out of the football.

The Patriots have a prolific rushing attack, leading the league with 178 rushing yards per game. That is silly. They average over five yards per rushing attempt, and they lead the league with seven rushing touchdowns. Cam Newton? He's a difference maker.

The Chiefs thus far have the sixth-worst rushing defense, which is pretty crazy when you consider that their whole thing is to score a million points, thus forcing their opponents to go pass-heavy. Yet when you allow 5.3 yards per carry like the Chiefs do, opponents are still going to run.

Lamar Jackson took off for 83 yards on nine carries last week. Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelly combined for 160 yards on the ground the week before. Deshaun Watson and David Johnson combined for 104 yards on 17 carries back in Week 1.

The Patriots will have their opportunities on the ground, and with the shrunken crowd size in K.C. not interfering with their snap counts on the road, I don't hate their ability to keep this one close until the end.

Man that was long. Could have just said "the Patriots can run the ball and the Chiefs can't stop the run." Ah well. You live and you learn.

(UPDATE, SUNDAY: Yeah well forget all of that. After the Cam Newton/COVID situation, it's KANSAS CITY -11 without hesitation. Fun write-up there, though. Like a portal to a simpler time.)

Buffalo (-3) over LAS VEGAS
The Bills' defense is seemingly getting worse? I don't know, but I do know that if 70,000 insane New York state residents had been filling those empty seats in Orchard Park last week, that furious Rams comeback never would have happened.

Philadelphia (+7) over SAN FRANCISCO
I mean, the more hilarious pick here is to pick the Eagles to lose and fall deeper into despair. And the pick that is most likely regrettable is the one where you think Philly will compete, only to sit there hopelessly in the second half on a Sunday night. The safer pick -- both in terms of football and personal emotions -- is to just pick the Niners. It's regret-free.

But those injuries really do just keep mounting. A win against the awful Giants is nice, but at some point, that catches up to you.

GREEN BAY (-7) over Atlanta
The Atlanta Falcons somehow ... keep showing up to games? With Dan Quinn as their coach?

Extreme yikes, folks. Extreme yikes.

The Falcons are having trouble beating anybody at all, so seeing the buzzsaw Packers on a Monday night in Lambeau seems like an absolute worst-case scenario. Tough break.

MYSTERY GAME: Pittsburgh (??) over TENNESSEE
Will this game happen? I don't know! Who will be allowed to play in it! Don't know that, either! Is this whole situation perhaps hanging by a thread and we're all just ignoring it and pretending that it's not the case? Ha ha! Good one, jokester! Are ya ready for some footballlll? A Tuesday night parrrttyyyyy! Crack a cold one and guzzle some wings because football is back and ain't going anywhere, baby! Ha ha ha ...

UPDATE: Not long after this story went live, the Steelers-Titans game was postponed until a later, unspecified date, based on new positive tests in the Titans organization. It's not a great situation.

Last week: 9-7

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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