Some clear themes have emerged roughly halfway through the regular season. First, there are a lot of bad teams. The gap between the best and worst teams is growing, perhaps a sign of how teams accustomed to adapting at a glacial pace have been left behind as on-field schemes and off-field strategies evolve faster than ever before. Second, there have been a lot of flags. Penalties are up more than 10 percent, from roughly 13 per game the past few years to more than 14.5 per game this season. This increase is more noticeable because of a baffling review process for pass interference that has rendered challenging the play pointless. And the most glaring trend of the season thus far is that all of the teams who have had to turn to their backup quarterbacks have been fine. The Saints have gone 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater, the Panthers are 4-0 with Kyle Allen, and the Colts are 4-2 with Jacoby Brissett. The Steelers got their two wins this season without Ben Roethlisberger and the Giants got their first two wins without Eli Manning. It seemed like an anomaly when the Eagles won the Super Bowl with their backup quarterback two years ago, but perhaps it was a sign. Speaking of which ...
The Quarterback Matchups That Could Have Been
Green Bay Packers (6-1) @ Kansas City Chiefs (5-2)
Kickoff time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Kansas City -4
Key Packers injuries and absences: Receiver Davante Adams (toe)
Key Chiefs injuries and absences: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (knee), left tackle Eric Fisher (groin), guard Andrew Wylie (ankle), defensive tackle Chris Jones (groin), defensive end Frank Clark (neck)
What to watch: Aaron Rodgers vs. … Matt Moore?
Well, this could be anticlimactic. Patrick Mahomes against Aaron Rodgers was slated to be one of the matchups of the year, but Mahomes dislocated his kneecap last week and was given at least a three-week recovery timeline. That was considered the best possible prognosis, but he has already returned to practice—and through Thursday, head coach Andy Reid had still refused to rule Mahomes out. Still, practicing and playing are not the same thing, and odds are Kansas City turns to Matt Moore, the former Dolphins backup turned Kansas City second-stringer. Moore, 35, was out of football last year, and he takes on a tougher test in his first 2019 start than Mahomes has faced all season. The Packers defense has looked excellent. New edge defenders Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have breathed life into the Packers’ pass rush, and second-year cornerback Jaire Alexander looks like a budding star. If Moore plays and struggles, the pressure will be on Mahomes to return from injury as their AFC West lead slips. But if Moore plays well and the Chiefs win with their backup QB, well, that would be par for the course in 2019.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4) @ Tennessee Titans (3-4)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen, Shane Bacon (reporter)
Opening line: Tennessee -2.5
Key Bucs injuries and absences: Guard Alex Cappa (forearm), tight end O.J. Howard (hamstring)
Key Titans injuries and absences: Quarterback Marcus Mariota (benched), tight end Delanie Walker (ankle), cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (foot)
What to watch: The failure of the 2015 draft class
Beware, can’t-miss quarterback prospects: In 2015, both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were considered no-brainer players worth building franchises around. Both have been profoundly disappointing. Winston has the most interceptions and second-most fumbles since he entered the league. He has a staggering 111 turnovers in 62 games.
Mariota’s quarterbacking has been worse. He looked like he was fulfilling his promise in his second season when he threw 26 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, but he broke his leg that Christmas Eve. His 2017 was nowhere near as good, and in 2018 Mariota injured his ulnar nerve in his neck that affected his throwing arm. He ultimately suffered “several” nerve injuries, according to Mariota.
We won’t even have the chance to see Mariota vs. Winston because Mariota has been benched for Ryan Tannehill. Both players are in the final year of their contract. It’s unlikely Mariota will be re-signed, and while Winston may get a short-term deal or the franchise tag, it’s hard for the Bucs to justify extending a player who gives the ball away 1.8 times per game in a sport where turnovers are the stat most correlated to winning games. When we hear ad nauseam that Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert are the best two quarterbacks in this year’s draft, keep these two in mind.
Coaches vs. Their Old Team
Cleveland Browns (2-4) @ New England Patriots (7-0)
Kickoff time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (sideline reporter)
Opening line: New England -11
Key Browns injuries and absences: Safety Damarious Randall (hamstring)
Key Patriots injuries and absences: Receiver Josh Gordon (injured reserve), guard Shaq Mason (ankle)
What to watch: Bill Belichick vs. Baker Mayfield
Bill Belichick has taken over defensive coordinator duties in New England this season; subsequently, the Patriots defense is among the best of all time through seven games and the Patriots have the best point differential ever to this point in the season. Worse news for Mayfield is that Belichick is 20-0 in his past 20 games against first- or second-year quarterbacks.
The Patriots have been shredding opposing offensive lines since their divisional-round win over the Chargers in January. In February they destroyed the Rams’ offensive line in the Super Bowl, and they’ve carried the dominance into this season. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out in Week 2, when New England played Miami, the Patriots switched looks late in the play clock in the hope that the offensive line wouldn’t be able to communicate the change in time.
The Pats basically assumed that the Dolphins OL had no ability to communicate with one another during the game. This late reveal somehow ended up with the nose tackle going so totally unblocked that he braces for contact that never really comes and nearly trips pic.twitter.com/QvxDAExOnx— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 29, 2019
That worked against the Jets on Monday. New England picked off Sam Darnold’s first throw of the game by attacking the Jets with a surprise Jamie Collins blitz where Darnold tried to change the protection but the Jets line did not hear him. Belichick might have Baker seeing ghosts, too. Here is the Browns’ starting offensive line along with their Pro Football Focus rank (minimum 300 snaps).
- Left tackle: Greg Robinson (23rd out of 55 tackles)
- Left guard: Joel Bitonio (fourth out of 53 guards)
- Center: J.C. Tretter (sixth out of 32 centers)
- Right guard: Eric Kush (49th out of 53 guards)
- Right tackle: Chris Hubbard (50th out of 55 tackles)
You don’t have to be a genius to decide to attack the right side of Cleveland’s line. Unfortunately for the Browns, the person deciding the best way to attack their right side is a genius. Expect Belichick—who coached the Browns for five years in the 1990s—to find a way for Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy to invade the Browns backfield and haunt Mayfield.
Seattle Seahawks (5-2) @ Atlanta Falcons (1-6)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Sam Rosen, Ronde Barber, Sara Walsh (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Seattle -3.5
Key Seahawks injuries and absences: Safety Bradley McDougald (back), defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (oblique)
Key injuries and absences: Quarterback Matt Ryan (ankle), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (abdomen), safety Keanu Neal (Achilles), guard Chris Lindstrom (foot)
What to watch: The Falcons try (and fail) to pressure Russell Wilson
The 2019 Falcons are a case study in failure. Head coach Dan Quinn—Seattle’s former defensive coordinator—fired all three of his coordinators (offense, defense, and special teams) but kept his job, just the ninth coach since 1986 to do so. The front office has spent lavishly to retain the team’s core and subsequently have the second-least cap space on the books for next season. The result has been a catastrophic 1-6 start that could easily be 0-7 if Nelson Agholor had not dropped a game-winning touchdown pass in Week 2.
This week the Falcons traded receiver Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots for a second-round pick, but the team is still stuck in between a rock and a hard place to rebuild. The Falcons spend the fourth-most money in the league on the defensive line but have not had a sack in their past four games, and if they do not get one on Sunday they’ll be the first team to go five consecutive games without a sack since the statistic began being tracked in 1982. Julio Jones reportedly gave a rousing locker room speech last week after their loss to the Rams. We’ll see whether this team just needed a good pep talk.
Cincinnati Bengals (0-7) @ Los Angeles Rams (4-3)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Melanie Collins (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Rams -9
Key Bengals injuries and absences: Receiver A.J. Green (ankle), receiver John Ross (shoulder), defensive end Carl Lawson (hamstring), offensive tackle Cordy Glenn (concussion), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (knee), cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (knee)
Key Rams injuries and absences: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews (jaw), linebacker Bryce Hager (shoulder), running back Malcolm Brown (ankle)
What to watch: Another rousing London matchup
Sean McVay is struggling, but his progeny are doing well. The Packers hired former McVay assistant Matt LaFleur and are off to the team’s best start in years. The Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury (and noted in the press release he was friends with McVay), and after a bumpy start Kingsbury and Kyler Murray already have flashed the potential to be a special combination. Then there’s the Bengals. Cincinnati hired Zac Taylor, the Rams’ 36-year-old quarterbacks coach last year. That’s a hell of a promotion for someone two rungs on the ladder removed from play-calling duties. To be fair, the Bengals have been ravaged by injuries at both tackle spots, pass catcher, and defensive end this season. Having said that, the Bengals have looked worse than the Dolphins the past few weeks. Andy Dalton is having the worst season of his career on a per-dropback basis, passer rating, and ESPN’s Total QBR. The Bengals held on to Marvin Lewis for 16 years and replaced him with what might be the worst candidate hired in this cycle. New blood doesn’t mean new ideas, and McVay might prove that in this game.
Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) @ Buffalo Bills (5-1)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Buffalo -1.5
Key Eagles injuries and absences: Receiver DeSean Jackson (abdomen), left tackle Jason Peters (knee), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (foot), linebacker Nigel Bradham (ankle)
Key Bills injuries and absences: Safety Kurt Coleman (hamstring)
What to watch: Whether the Eagles can grab an early lead
Philadelphia was embarrassed 37-10 by Dallas on Sunday Night Football last week. Philly fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter and was behind double digits at halftime for the fourth time this season. The Eagles can’t afford to come out groggy against the Bills, who have one of the best defenses in football, led by head coach Sean McDermott, who was Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator in 2009 and 2010.
Teams on Winning Streaks vs. Teams on Winning Streaks
Carolina Panthers (4-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (6-0)
Kickoff time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Announcers: Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth, Jennifer Hale (sideline reporter)
Opening line: San Francisco -6.5
Key Panthers injuries and absences: Quarterback Cam Newton (foot), defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (knee), linebacker Shaq Thompson (ankle), tight end Greg Olsen (finger), safety Eric Reid (ankle)
Key 49ers injuries and absences: Tight end George Kittle (groin), tackle Joe Staley (fibula), right tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee), wide receiver Dante Pettis (knee), wide receiver Deebo Samuel (knee)
What to watch: Whether Jimmy G is legit
The 49ers defense, running game, and coaching staff have proved they are for real this season. On Sunday we will discover whether Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers’ passing game are too. Despite their 6-0 start, which means they’ve already surpassed their 2018 win total, we still have no idea how good Garoppolo is, and ultimately he is key to winning this game (and the NFC West, and a first-round bye, and the Super Bowl). Garoppolo has exactly 16 career starts. That’s fitting because in terms of on-field experience, he is still a rookie. Garoppolo has fewer pass attempts in his nine games over his past two seasons (256) than Kyler Murray has this season in seven games (259). The 49ers have the fewest pass attempts in the NFL. They run on more than 58 percent of their plays, by far the most in the league. Whether it is because the 49ers have been protecting large leads with the run game, a game plan by Kyle Shanahan, or both, San Francisco hasn’t asked much of Jimmy Garoppolo.
That could change Sunday. The 49ers eked out a win against the Rams and Washington without their two starting tackles, but the Panthers are the best defense they’ve faced. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, former 49ers safety Eric Reid will be extra motivated to play against the team who drafted him, and versatile linebacker/pass rushers Brian Burns and Shaq Thompson could run circles around backup tackles Justin Skule and rookie Daniel Brunskill. All will likely combine to disrupt the 49ers’ preferred game plan, and that will require Garoppolo to do more than usual. We’ll see whether he is up to the task.
Arizona Cardinals (3-3-1) @ New Orleans Saints (6-1)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Jay Feely (sideline reporter)
Opening line: New Orleans -7.5
Key Cardinals injuries and absences: Running back David Johnson (ankle), defensive end Zach Allen (neck)
Key Saints injuries and absences: Quarterback Drew Brees (thumb), running back Alvin Kamara (ankle/knee), tight end Jared Cook (ankle)
What to watch: The Saints quarterback (whoever it is)
Drew Brees wants to return for this game. It may make more sense for the Saints to go one last round with Teddy Bridgewater, take their bye week, and then let Brees return in Week 10 against Atlanta, who has not had a sack in four games. But neither Brees nor head coach Sean Payton is known for long-term planning, so as long as Brees can adequately grasp a football this week, he might play. Regardless of what happens in this game, Bridgewater has done remarkably well in the absence of the NFL’s all-time leading passer. The Saints have gone 5-0 under Bridgewater’s leadership, and he has been a game manager in the most complimentary sense of the term. In five starts he has nine passing touchdowns and just two turnovers. He has protected leads in games where New Orleans’s defense dominated, like the Saints’ 12-10 win against Dallas and their 13-6 win over Jacksonville, but he also was able to sling it when he needed to, like in their 31-24 win over Tampa Bay.
The Cardinals defense is not quite a cakewalk now that they have cornerback Patrick Peterson back from suspension, but the Saints are so superior from top to bottom that it may not matter whether Brees returns. Not to mention the hoopla that will ensue if Brees does return and the Saints lose.
Teams That Need to Bounce Back From a Bad Loss
New York Jets (1-5) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (3-4)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Spero Dedes, Adam Archuleta (analyst)
Opening line: Jacksonville -4
Key Jets injuries and absences: Guard Kelechi Osemele (tackle Kelvin Beachum (ankle), center Ryan Kalil (elbow/shoulder), guard Brian Winters (shoulder/knee), tight end Chris Herndon (hamstring), receiver Jamison Crowder (knee), linebacker C.J. Mosley (groin),
Key Jaguars injuries and absences: Wide receiver Dede Westbrook (neck/shoulder), offensive tackle Cam Robinson (toe), guard Andrew Norwell (ankle), defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (core muscle), wide receiver Marqise Lee (ankle)
What to watch: Sam Darnold, Ghostbuster
Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.
Clichés are annoying because they are true. Last week’s 33-0 shutout by the New England Patriots may have been the most embarrassing game the New York Jets have been a part of at any level of football. The truth is that game doesn’t matter. What matters for the Jets is how they recover. In less than half of a season, their head coach has become a punch line, their starting quarterback missed a month with mono, and the team is disputing that one of its offensive linemen needs surgery. Then their main divisional rival shut them out and won by more than four touchdowns on Monday Night Football, and a video of their starting QB saying he was “seeing ghosts” went viral. Whether the Jets come together or drift further apart over their next 10 games will speak volumes about Adam Gase’s abilities as a head coach and Sam Darnold’s viability as a quarterback.
New York Giants (2-5) @ Detroit Lions (2-3-1)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Kenny Albert, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Detroit -7.5
Key Giants injuries and absences: Receiver Sterling Shepard (concussion)
Key Lions injuries and absences: Cornerback Darius Slay (hamstring), defensive tackle Mike Daniels (foot)
What to watch: The Lions receivers feast
The Lions need to bounce back from three bad losses, not one. In Week 4, they lost to the Chiefs by four points after fumbling twice within the 5-yard line. Two weeks ago, Detroit had an officiating debacle in Green Bay. Last week, the Lions had nobody to blame but themselves for their 42-30 loss to the Vikings, during which they were shredded by Kirk Cousins. Luckily, they are going against a secondary that could fix their losing streak.
Here’s the list of NFL players with two or more games with four receiving touchdowns: Jerry Rice, Sterling Sharpe, and … Marvin Jones Jr., who caught four touchdowns for Detroit last week. Jones became the first player to catch four touchdowns with fewer than 100 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Lions nominal no. 1 receiver Kenny Golladay had one catch for 21 yards. Football is weird.
The Giants secondary will likely redistribute those touchdowns, not reduce them. New York allows the sixth-most adjusted yards per pass attempt and is tied for the third-most missed tackles. The Giants don’t have anyone who can cover Golladay or Jones, never mind both. Jones won’t have four receiving scores again this week, but Matt Stafford certainly could have four more passing touchdowns.
Los Angeles Chargers (2-5) @ Chicago Bears (3-3)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman, Shannon Spake (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Chicago -5.5
Key Chargers injuries and absences: Receiver Keenan Allen (hamstring), center Mike Pouncey (neck), safety Derwin James (foot), safety Adrian Phillips (broken arm), safety Nasir Adderley (hamstring), defensive end Melvin Ingram (hamstring)
Key Bears injuries and absences: Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (elbow), offensive lineman Kyle Long (hip)
What to watch: Whether Mitchell Trubisky helps or hurts the Bears
Both of these teams went 12-4 last year, but the Chargers have already lost five games this season. As demoralizing as the Chargers’ season has been, it would be even worse for the Bears to lose this game and drop to 3-4 after they were down 36-10 to the Saints midway through the fourth quarter last week. Chicago already had a players only meeting this week, which can either be a catalyst for change or a tremor before an earthquake. The Bears are without defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and the Chargers are getting back left tackle Russell Okung, but having to handle Khalil Mack in his first game of the season is quite the welcome. The Bears are no longer locks against anybody as long as Mitchell Trubisky continues to play like a JV quarterback thrust into starting for the varsity team. Three years into the job, Trubisky still struggles to make basic decisions essential to the Bears success. As this excellent Twitter thread from Seth Galina showed, Trubisky ran a routine run-pass option early in the second quarter against the Saints. He didn’t see the wide-open receiver that was his primary read, looked to the other side of the field to a different wide-open receiver, and then took a sack. Instead of entering the red zone, the Bears had a second-and-18 and kicked a field goal.
And that's how I ended up here: underneath Cameron Jordan.— Seth Galina (@SethGalina) October 21, 2019
Chicago’s chances against the Chargers, like the rest of the season, rely on Mitch being competent.
AFC South Teams Trying to Take the Division Lead vs. AFC West Teams Trying to Stay in the Playoff Hunt
Oakland Raiders (3-3) @ Houston Texans (4-3)
Kickoff time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, James Lofton, AJ Ross (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Houston -6.5
Key Texans injuries and absences: Wide receiver Will Fuller (hamstring), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring/neck), wide receiver Kenny Stills (ankle/hamstring)
Key Raider injuries and absences: Running back Josh Jacobs (shoulder), left tackle Trent Brown (calf), center Rodney Hudson (ankle)
What to watch: Gareon Conley’s (immediate) revenge game
There are three coaches who are also their team’s de facto general manager. One is Bill Belichick and the other two are the coaches in this game. Both Oakland’s Jon Gruden and Houston’s Bill O’Brien have made some, uh, questionable decisions in the past year or so, with Gruden trading away the Raiders’ two best players (Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper) and the Texans sending out their draft picks like they are about to expire. Funnily enough, these two made a trade this week. Houston sent the Raiders a third-round pick for cornerback Gareon Conley, who will likely suit up against the Raiders on Sunday. As if that wasn’t weird enough, it’s the second time that the Texans have done this. Last year, the Texans traded a fourth-rounder for Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas on the day of the trade deadline, which also happened to occur during the week they played Denver. (Thomas had three catches for 61 yards against the Broncos in his first game for Houston.)
This is an important game for both teams. Currently, the Texans are in line for the final wild-card spot, but a Raiders win would put the Raiders there and give them the head-to-head tiebreaker. It’s tempting to think there is some chess going on here with this Conley trade. In reality, there is probably a much simpler answer. Bill O’Brien was watching tape of the Raiders to prepare for the game, saw something in Conley, and called up Jon Gruden. Boom. Why does Bill O’Brien need to scour tape of players on the other 31 teams before the trade deadline each year when he can just make a trade with the team he’s already studying that week?
Denver Broncos (2-5) @ Indianapolis Colts (4-2)
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Indianapolis -5
Key Broncos injuries and absences: Receiver Emmanuel Sanders (traded), defensive end Bradley Chubb (ACL), cornerback Bryce Callahan (foot)
Key Colts injuries and absences: Cornerback Pierre Desir (hamstring), cornerback Kenny Moore (MCL) receiver Parris Campbell (abdominal)
What to watch: The fruits of one of the league’s best front offices versus one of the league’s stalest
Both of these teams are defined by how they have handled their organization’s post–Peyton Manning glory years. Since Manning retired, John Elway has famously failed to find a suitable quarterback, failing on Brock Osweiler, first-round pick Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, and Joe Flacco. (We will see about Drew Lock, who has a thumb injury and has not played this year.) This has created the impression Elway can’t identify quarterback talent, but in truth he has struggled to scout players at any position. Meanwhile, the Colts have built a team by being prepared at quarterback under GM Chris Ballard. While the previous regime stumbled into Andrew Luck, Ballard wisely scooped up Jacoby Brissett from New England in one of the rare swaps the Patriots lost. Ballard has also drafted extraordinarily well in his short tenure with the Colts, rebuilding Indy’s offensive line and defense on the fly. The differences in the organizations could be evident in this game.
Monday Night Football
Miami Dolphins (0-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4)
Kickoff time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Announcers: Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Pittsburgh -16
Key Steelers injuries and absences: Linebacker T.J. Watt (abdomen), running back Jaylen Samuels (knee), quarterback Mason Rudolph (concussion), tight end Vance McDonald (shoulder), wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (illness), cornerback Joe Haden (groin)
Key Dolphins injuries and absences: Cornerback Xavien Howard (knee), safety Reshad Jones (chest), wide receiver Albert Wilson (hip)
What to watch: Déjà vu
We know what you’re thinking: This game sucks. Well, if you think this sucks, let me tell you about Dolphins-Steelers on MNF in 2007. The field was so muddy a punt got wedged into the turf.
Pittsburgh was favored by 16 points, and the over/under for the game was 38.5. The Steelers won 3-0. Thanks to a torrential downpour, for 59 minutes and 40 seconds, the score was 0-0. Miami’s starting quarterback, John Beck, threw for 132 yards, while Miami running backs Jesse Chatman and Ricky Williams combined for 17 carries for 32 yards. These were the Dolphins’ drives.
These were the Steelers’ drives:
Whatever happens on Monday, just know that this won’t even be the worst Dolphins-Steelers Monday night game in the past 12 years.
Byes: Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens