Just over a month into the 2020 NFL season, it has become a weekly ritual for fans to hold their breath on Friday mornings until the results of their favorite team’s COVID-19 tests are revealed. This week the Atlanta Falcons are in the spotlight, after a personnel staffer was diagnosed with the virus on Thursday. Friday’s tests may dictate whether the team’s scheduled game against the Vikings can happen on Sunday.
Other football things are going on, too—Le’Veon Bell is joining the Chiefs, Dan Quinn has been fired by the Falcons, and Aaron Rodgers is talking about aliens building the pyramids—but all pale in comparison to the weirdness of this season. Take this week, when we got a Tuesday-night football game, but not Thursday Night Football. That’s a rarity, but we’re being treated to another rarity this week: Aaron Rodgers playing Tom Brady.
Byes: New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Las Vegas Raiders
Green Bay Packers (4-0) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Buccaneers -3 (Now Packers -1)
There are only two games in the late window this week: Jets vs. Dolphins and Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady. This could be the most viewed non-prime-time game of the season.
This will mark just the third time that Rodgers and Brady have played each other. Rodgers’s Packers beat the Patriots by five points in 2014, and the Patriots beat the Packers by two touchdowns in 2018. But now Rodgers visits Brady in Tompa Bay, and the Green Bay QB is playing at an MVP level: 13 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions or fumbles through four games. Green Bay is 4-0 despite injuries hampering much of the team, including the already limited wide receiver corps. Fortunately for the Packers, though, star Davante Adams should return from a hamstring injury this week.
When Green Bay’s offense sends players in motion before the snap, keep an eye on running back Aaron Jones. The Packers have the best rushing offense in the league on plays with motion this season, but a bottom-five rushing offense on plays without motion. Tampa Bay has the league’s best run defense through five games, but that unit just lost defensive tackle Vita Vea for the season with a broken ankle. Filling in the gaps will be linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, likely the best linebacker duo in the NFL.
On offense, the Bucs have been a bit stagnant to start the season. Mike Evans has a whopping six touchdowns but is barely averaging 50 yards per game. Receiver Chris Godwin has already suffered a hamstring injury and concussion this season and tight end O.J. Howard is out for the season with an Achilles injury. But the real story in Tampa is Brady, who is coming off the extremely embarrassing gaffe of forgetting what down it was during a must-score drive on Thursday Night Football last week.
Cleveland Browns (4-1) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Steelers -5.5
The Browns are 4-1 for the first time since 1994, when Bill Belichick was the head coach, and another win will give them a share of first place in the AFC North. But standing in the way are the undefeated Steelers. Cleveland has turned its offensive line from a liability to an asset this season, but the Steelers have led or tied for the league lead in sacks each of the past three years and are once again tied for the most in 2020 (despite having played just four games). Baker Mayfield has consistently mishandled pressure as a pro quarterback, and how he deals with Pittsburgh’s pass rush will heavily affect this game.
On the other side of the ball, Steelers rookie receiver Chase Claypool scored four touchdowns in a breakout game against the Eagles last week. As exciting as that performance was, though, the real star was Ben Roethlisberger, who has targeted eight players in each of Pittsburgh’s first four games. Pittsburgh is spreading the ball around the field, limiting mistakes, and showing that this offense has returned to form with Big Ben back under center.
This game will also be the first time Myles Garrett has played against Pittsburgh since his season-ending incident last year. In a game in November, Garrett took off Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and swung it at Rudolph’s head. Garrett was suspended for the rest of the season. Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey was suspended for two games for his role in the fight, and Cleveland defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi was suspended one game. In February, Garrett said in an interview with ESPN that the fight began when Rudolph called him a “stupid N-word.” Rudolph later denied that account.
Expect this game to have some chippy moments, but to also be heavily controlled by referees looking to draw clear lines. Garrett has six sacks in five games this season and is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Baltimore Ravens (4-1) @ Philadelphia Eagles (1-3-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Ravens -7
Few of the offensive players on these teams are playing particularly well. The Ravens are 4-1, but quarterback Lamar Jackson is nowhere near his 2019 form. Whether it’s a knee injury, a lack of chemistry with his receivers, or a change in play-calling tendencies (perhaps all three?), the Ravens offense is clunky. Jackson is relying too much on tight end Mark Andrews and receiver Marquise Brown, so defenses are closing in on them. Baltimore’s other options—receivers Miles Boykin and Willie Snead—aren’t getting open often enough, and when they have found windows, Lamar has not been accurate. Jackson’s nagging knee injury might be affecting his passing and rushing ability, but Baltimore needs to get its magic back, and the team could start by giving more playing time to rookie running back J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins is the most talented guy in the Ravens backfield, but he’s getting just the third-most carries among their running backs.
Even with their offensive struggles, though, the Ravens are winning games because of their defense. Baltimore has allowed the fewest points in the NFL, and every level of this unit is a terror to deal with. They blitz more than every team except Pittsburgh; cornerback Marlon Humphrey has forced a fumble in three of the past four games; and last week, Baltimore had five sacks just from its defensive backs, the most since sacks became a stat in 1982.
That defense now faces Philly’s injured offense, which is missing a half-dozen offensive linemen plus four of its top six pass catchers. Worse than the injuries is that quarterback Carson Wentz has been inconsistent, with some game-saving plays mixed with a lot of drive-ending decisions. Wentz could use a big game from tight end Zach Ertz, who has had a disappointing first month of the season. If the Eagles are going to play better, they have to start by getting Wentz and Ertz back on the same page.
Washington Football Team (1-4) @ New York Giants (0-5)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Giants -3.5
Alex Smith’s return to the field last week was an emotional journey years in the making. But given that Kyle Allen will start for Washington this week, the only reason to tune into this game is to see whether the Giants can stay in the playoff race. What a time.
Houston Texans (1-4) @ Tennessee Titans (4-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Titans -5.5
The only time you see football players get tossed like that is when they are 110-pound sophomores in high school games. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel called this Henry run from Tuesday’s game against the Bills the greatest 5-yard run of all time—which is a shame, because the play was called back because of two offsetting penalties. Spiritually, though, the play will exist on a loop in Josh Norman’s soul. Fun fact: While watching that play, your eyes probably looked the same as Derrick Henry’s eyes during the play.
I’ve been staring at this photo for 20 minutes and haven’t stopped laughing pic.twitter.com/hSHJ4fNdjy— Oluwajomiloju (@JomiAdeniran) October 14, 2020
After the game—a 42-16 win—Vrabel downplayed the idea that the Titans played better because they were mad about the criticism they received over the organization’s two dozen positive coronavirus tests. “You don’t all the sudden galvanize when things are bad,” Vrabel told reporters. “I think that’s a testament to the players and the things we’ve tried to build here. You don’t [say], ‘Oh, there’s a shitstorm, let’s galvanize.’”
Tennessee has been playing well for a full year now after Ryan Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 6 last season and led one of the league’s best offenses under coordinator Arthur Smith. The Titans wrecked the Ravens in the divisional round of last season’s playoffs, and Baltimore’s offense has not been the same since. Tennessee lost the AFC championship game in January but hasn’t lost since then. This group is fully galvanized, and they deserve your respect—or Derrick Henry might throw you into the recesses of your own soul.
Cincinnati Bengals (1-3-1) @ Indianapolis Colts (3-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Colts -9.5
Enormous who gives a shit energy.
Denver Broncos (1-3) @ New England Patriots (2-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Patriots -9.5
Let’s try this one again. This game was postponed from Week 5, and the Broncos were not thrilled that they practiced all week only to be retroactively assigned a bye. They are probably also not thrilled that they prepared for Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer and will likely be getting Cam Newton instead. But fairness is the sacrifice for the NFL trying to get this 2020 season played in full.
The game’s second postponement undoubtedly helped the Patriots, as they’re expected to have their starting QB back in the lineup. Newton tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month and missed one game against the Chiefs, but he was removed from the COVID-19 list this Wednesday and returned to practice on Thursday. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, also returned to practice on Thursday (it was New England’s first full practice since October 2).
The NFL has different rules for players who test positive for COVID-19 and are symptomatic versus those who are asymptomatic. Both Gilmore and Newton were asymptomatic, so they could return to practice 10 days after their initial positive test, or after two negative tests spaced at least 24 hours apart.
Atlanta Falcons (0-5) @ Minnesota Vikings (1-4)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Vikings -3.5
Welcome to the Ghost of Mike Zimmer’s Future. The winless Atlanta Falcons just fired head coach Dan Quinn, ending a two-year-long existential crisis for the franchise. If the Falcons respond by winning this game and giving each of these teams a 1-5 record, it is going to be hard for Zimmer to justify keeping his job. The Vikings nearly beat Seattle, one of the best teams in football, last week, but losing to Atlanta, one of the league’s worst, would all but end Minnesota’s playoff hopes.
The Falcons had one player test positive on Tuesday and a personnel employee test positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, and the team is awaiting another round of results on Friday. More positive tests could force this game to be postponed.
Chicago Bears (4-1) @ Carolina Panthers (3-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Panthers -3
Are the Bears the worst 4-1 team ever? No. According to Football Outsiders, which has been tracking efficiency going back to 1986, the worst 4-1 team ever is the 2010 Bears. These 2020 Bears are second. Perhaps they’d be better if they had signed Teddy Bridgewater, who they’ll face on Sunday. Bridgewater is sixth in the league in passing yards so far this season.
Detroit Lions (1-3) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Lions -2.5
In the wild, lions succeed on less than 30 percent of their hunts. Similarly, the Detroit Lions have won just 29 percent of their games since hiring head coach Matt Patricia. That is the third-worst winning percentage since the 2018 season began. Say what you want about Patricia, but he understands Lions football.
New York Jets (0-5) @ Miami Dolphins (2-3)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Dolphins -8 (now -9.5)
If you watch this game instead of Bucs-Packers, seek help.
Sunday Night Football
Los Angeles Rams (4-1) @ San Francisco 49ers (2-3)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: San Francisco -3
This was supposed to be a fun prime-time game: Los Angeles vs. San Francisco, Sean McVay vs. Kyle Shanahan, Jared Goff vs. Jimmy Garoppolo—the NFC West!
Not so much now that San Francisco’s season is in a freefall. The 49ers have destroyed the Giants and Jets, perhaps the two worst teams in the NFL, and lost to the Cardinals, Eagles, and Dolphins. That’s understandable, though, considering they are the most injured team in football. At various points this season, San Francisco has played without its ...
- Starting quarterback
- Two of its top three running backs
- An All-Pro tight end
- Its top two wide receivers
- Both starting defensive ends
- The defensive tackle who was the captain of last year’s defense
- The starting middle linebacker
- All three starting cornerbacks
Shanahan is smart, but he is not a shaman. It is unreasonable to expect this team to be anywhere near full capacity when so many key contributors are out of the lineup. San Francisco made the Super Bowl last season largely because it had a smart coaching staff leading a talented and healthy roster. Now the roster is slightly less talented and extremely unhealthy. The team’s 2-3 start is not surprising, but the real issue to watch is whether Jimmy Garoppolo can elevate the group around him. Garoppolo looked awful returning from his sprained ankle last week, but the team will need him to perform with so much else going wrong.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, they tripped during the easy part of their schedule. Between now and December 7, they play the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Rams (again), and Bills. That might be seven consecutive games against playoff teams. At least they got those wins against the Jets and Giants.
Monday Night Football Part 1
Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) @ Buffalo Bills (4-1)
Time: 5 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox/NFL Network
Opening point spread: Chiefs -3
This game was originally scheduled for Thursday Night Football, but was moved to Monday to account for a bunch of COVID-19-related reshuffling. Both of these teams are coming off perplexing losses. The Chiefs just lost a game for the first time since last November, and the Bills were just crushed by the Titans on Tuesday night. It is tempting to not put too much stock in either outcome, especially since the Bills were without cornerback Tre’Davious White last week. But if White can’t go again this week, that will be tough for Buffalo to overcome.
The Chiefs are also in an odd spot. Patrick Mahomes was dicing and dancing around Raiders defenders last week, but his pass catchers were not making their usual plays (tight end Travis Kelce took responsibility for the loss, tweeting that he didn’t play his best). A Bills win would be a massive boon for Josh Allen’s MVP candidacy—and his credibility as a top quarterback—but the Chiefs are going to be a monster to keep up with in this game.
Monday Night Football Part 2
Arizona Cardinals (3-2) @ Dallas Cowboys (2-3)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cowboys -3
The Andy Dalton era in Dallas begins. The Cowboys are handing Dalton the keys after quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a compound fracture in his ankle last week. But no pressure—Dalton is just taking over as the Cowboys quarterback on Monday Night Football.
Arizona’s best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, is out for the season, so the Cardinals defense will be even more depleted than usual on Sunday. Dallas’s defense has been perhaps the worst in the NFL so far, so this game could end up as a shootout. That benefits Kyler Murray, who is looking to get a wayward Cardinals offense back on track. Baker Mayfield already embarrassed the Cowboys at home two weeks ago, and now another Oklahoma Sooner might do the same.