Update: On Saturday morning, after this article’s publication, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Patriots quarterback Cam Newton has tested positive for the coronavirus and would self-quarantine, and a subsequent league statement announced positive tests for players on both the Patriots and the Chiefs. The NFL has postponed the Patriots game against the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday; the league will attempt to play the game on Monday or Tuesday, with the latter being the “more likely” option, according to Schefter. In addition, 16 members of the Titans have now tested positive.
We made it almost a month before the pandemic disrupted the NFL season. Sunday’s scheduled matchup between the 3-0 Pittsburgh Steelers and 3-0 Tennessee Titans has been postponed due to multiple positive tests among Tennessee players and staffers. The chain of events began last week, when Titans linebackers coach-slash-defensive coordinator Shane Bowen entered COVID-19 protocols and did not travel for the team’s game against Minnesota. The next day, on Sunday, Tennessee played the Vikings. (Players are not tested on Sundays largely due to fears that false positives will keep people out of games.) Titans players and essential employees were tested again on Monday and on Tuesday; the team received word that eight additional people had tested positive, three of whom were players. The NFL shut down the Titans’ and Vikings’ facilities immediately, though the Vikings have not had any players or employees test positive this week and are expected to play the Texans as scheduled on Sunday. But the contact tracing is not limited to the NFL. A bus driver who drove the Titans in Minnesota last week has tested positive for coronavirus, and that driver also drove the Houston Astros during their playoff series against the Minnesota Twins. The Astros have not had any positive tests this week.
It is unclear when the Titans-Steelers game will be played, or if Tennessee will be able to play its Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills. A one-week hiatus will be relatively easy to reschedule. A two-week gap would require more creativity. Like Major League Baseball, the NFL was largely successful in preventing the spread of the virus during training camp, but now the league has its first postponement. This is still the NFL, however, so the rest of the show will go on in Week 4, starting with ...
New England Patriots (2-1) @ Kansas City Chiefs (3-0)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chiefs -8
Patrick Mahomes’s Chiefs vs. Tom Brady’s Patriots seemed like a classic rivalry, even if it existed for only two years. Now, though, we’ll get to see if this matchup still has its magic with Cam Newton under center in New England.
Keeping pace with the Chiefs is a tall order. Kansas City rebounded from a surprisingly sluggish showing against the Chargers in Week 2 to run ragged over the Ravens in Week 3 with four passing plays that went for more than 22 yards. Kansas City fielding the league’s best offense is no surprise, but the Chiefs defense has been surprisingly strong so far this season, too, ranking in the top 10 in points per drive allowed and allowing the fewest receiving yards in the league. The Chiefs looked particularly good last week on Monday Night Football, limiting Baltimore to just 97 yards in the first half, but Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will look to exploit holes that the Ravens couldn’t. Expect the Patriots to keep pace with the Chiefs better than Baltimore did—and even if they can’t, tune in to hear Tony Romo gush about Mahomes.
New Orleans Saints (1-2) @ Detroit Lions (1-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -4
This should be a statement game for the Saints, with the statement being “we do not have to make Drew Brees retire until after the season.” New Orleans looked out of sorts against the Raiders in Week 2 and then out of their element against the Packers in Week 3 (except for Alvin Kamara, who looked out of this world). The main person receiving the blame for New Orleans’s 1-2 start has been Drew Brees. Is the 41-year-old quarterback done, or is he just underperforming while the league’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, Michael Thomas, is out with a high ankle sprain?
¿Porque no los dos? Brees definitely looks like he is in his 40s, starting with a hesitancy to throw downfield. Brees threw 10 percent of his passes 20 yards or more in the air last year, but just 2 percent of his passes have traveled that far this year, according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. In the rare times Brees does throw downfield, he is less accurate than he’s been in the past. Barnwell found that Brees’s accuracy on throws beyond 5 yards this season has been just 50 percent. This confirms what feels obvious when watching Brees play. Former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks said one of the reasons he wanted a trade from New Orleans was because Brees couldn’t get him the ball deep, and that was three years ago. Since then, the Saints have started deploying Taysom Hill to throw their deepest deep shots. Brees’s arm is whatever the opposite of al dente is.
But the rest of this offense isn’t helping much either. Thomas is out, and though he wants to return ASAP from his sprained ankle, the history of quick returns from that injury is discouraging. Kamara—the true no. 2 receiving option in this offense—is great, and receiver Emmanuel Sanders has been solid. But tight end Jared Cook has a groin injury, and fast receivers Tre’Quan Smith and Deonte Harris seem too raw to contribute in the underneath routes. Brees has the noodle arm, but the Saints aren’t using their usual sauce. They could turn things around this week against a Lions defense that should be easily diced by Sean Payton’s scheme—but whether Brees can execute remains to be seen.
Baltimore Ravens (2-1) @ Washington Football Team (1-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Baltimore -12
The Ravens need a bounce-back game even more than the Saints do. Baltimore just got outclassed by the Chiefs on Monday Night Football and now faces Washington, a team that turned the ball over five times against the Browns last week. This is a layup for Lamar to get back on track.
Cleveland Browns (2-1) @ Dallas Cowboys (1-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Dallas -4
This game should be more interesting than it is. Dallas is clearly the cream of a disgusting NFC East crop, but the team has just one win to show for it. Dak Prescott and Co. should dice a Browns defense that feasted on the inexperienced Dwayne Haskins last week but may be overwhelmed by the Cowboys’ offensive options.
Minnesota Vikings (0-3) @ Houston Texans (0-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Texans -4
This game was nearly postponed after Minnesota’s opponent last week, the Tennessee Titans, had multiple players and employees test positive for the coronavirus. But the Vikings and their essential staff all tested negative this week, so the game will be played as scheduled. Still, fans of these teams may wish their season was just canceled. The loser of this game will drop to 0-4, giving them a roughly 3 percent chance of making the playoffs (according to how the 14-team postseason field would have shaken out in the past 10 years). Missing the playoffs would be catastrophic for either of these two squads, as the Vikings just locked themselves into three more years of Kirk Cousins and the Texans traded away DeAndre Hopkins this offseason. Make no mistake, the team that loses this game will be in a full-blown existential crisis.
It is worth noting that Minnesota sports fans are already in the middle of an existential crisis this week. On the baseball diamond, the Minnesota Twins lost their 18th consecutive playoff game on Wednesday, and on the basketball court, former Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler has led the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals. The Vikings dropping to 0-4 would be the cherry on top of a shit sundae, and unfortunately, the Texans are favored for a reason. Minnesota let its top three cornerbacks from last season (Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander, and Trae Waynes) go to other teams this offseason, and now the team’s top two cornerbacks—Mike Hughes and Cameron Dantzler—may miss this game due to injury. That would leave the Vikings with Jeff Gladney and Holton Hill, who are the 84th- and 95th-highest graded cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus out of 100 eligible players. Not what you want. Houston’s offense has looked bad after playing perhaps the three best teams in the AFC—Kansas City, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh—but this could be its rebound game.
Indianapolis Colts (2-1) @ Chicago Bears (3-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick ’Em
It makes sense that the Bears are playing the Colts this week, because Chicago has been pulling horseshoes out of its ass all season. After two ridiculously lucky wins to start the year, the Bears finally benched Mitchell Trubisky last week in favor of Nick Foles, who threw three touchdowns in a remarkable comeback win (and a remarkable Falcons loss). But if anyone knows how to extinguish Foles’s flames, it is Colts head coach Frank Reich. Reich was Foles’s offensive coordinator in Philadelphia when the Eagles won the Super Bowl three years ago. In a press conference this week, Foles said that Reich changed his life.
Here's the video of Nick Foles' full answer about Frank Reich being the one that "really figured me out as a player" during their time together in Philadelphia - pic.twitter.com/4H4J3K70kg— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) October 1, 2020
“He was the one who really figured me out as a player,” Foles said. “[He] realized that we had it all wrong, and they just threw some plays out there one day and just said, ‘Go play these plays, we studied you and these are the plays you do.’”
The Colts defense has allowed the fewest points per game and yards per play through three weeks, and their coach understands Foles better than Foles understands himself. This might be the week the Bears run out of horseshoes and just end up showing their ass.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) @ Cincinnati Bengals (0-2-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cincinnati -3
The immediate, visceral reaction to these two teams playing is “ew.” But Joe Burrow vs. Gardner Minshew II is one of the more compelling matchups of the week. Minshew struggled mightily against Miami last week, but weird stuff always happens on Thursday Night Football. Minshew has grown as a quarterback in ways that seem likely to stick the rest of the season. Burrow, meanwhile ranks second in pass attempts as he struggles to save the Bengals defense from self-dug holes. This game could finally let these longtime losers have a little fun.
Seattle Seahawks (3-0) @ Miami Dolphins (1-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seahawks -6.5
Los Angeles Chargers (1-2) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Buccaneers -4.5
Justin Herbert could be Tom Brady’s son. No, really, look.
We’ll see whether Brady can make the rest of the Chargers look like his children in this game.
Brady (who was reportedly picking between the Bucs and the Chargers in free agency this March) has had a strange start to the season. Tampa Bay is 2-1, but what was expected to be the league’s best receiving situation has been anything but. Mike Evans has four touchdowns, but he’s also had two different games when he recorded exactly 2 receiving yards. Chris Godwin is out with a hamstring injury he suffered almost as soon as he was cleared from concussion protocol. And Rob Gronkowski was a glorified blocking tight end for the first two weeks of the season. With Godwin out, perhaps we’ll see Gronk get more involved this week.
Arizona Cardinals (2-1) @ Carolina Panthers (1-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cardinals -3.5
The Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins in March and soon after made him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. Here is what he has done so far this season:
DeAndre Hopkins 2020: 32 catches (most in NFL), 356 receiving yards (most in NFL), one TD
While Hopkins is putting up those numbers, here are the combined receiving numbers for the players Houston acquired in the Hopkins trade:
Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and David Johnson 2020: 28 catches, 386 receiving yards, one TD
Hopkins is having one of the best starts to a season ever for a receiver on a new team. That is unlikely to stop this week against Carolina, which has one of the league’s least effective defenses.
New York Giants (0-3) @ Los Angeles Rams (2-1)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Rams -9
Daniel Jones vs. Aaron Donald. What could go wrong? Through his first 15 career starts, Jones has fumbled an astonishing 20 times—that’s more than all but one other quarterback (Tony Banks) in the same span since 1994, when fumbles started reliably being recorded in NFL databases. A lot of young quarterbacks metaphorically drop the ball, but Jones really just drops the ball. Donald, meanwhile, is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who single-handedly wrecked a key Bills drive last week. He will be hunting for a strip sack (or three) in this game. Statistically speaking, Jones is likely to oblige.
Buffalo Bills (3-0) @ Las Vegas Raiders (2-1)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bills -2.5
It is strange that this line opened at merely 2.5 points and is now just sitting at just three. Josh Allen has looked elite through three games, with 10 passing touchdowns to just one interception, and Bills receiver Stefon Diggs is in the top five in the league in receiving yards. Meanwhile in Las Vegas, the Raiders have no pass rush, with just three sacks in three games. They are not good at pass coverage, with a bottom-six coverage grade on Pro Football Focus, and that does not account for losing starting cornerback Damon Arnette to injury this week. The Raiders also can’t tackle—they are one of two teams with more than 40 missed tackles through three games; the other is the Jets.
Sunday Night Football
Philadelphia Eagles (0-2-1) @ San Francisco 49ers (2-1)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: San Francisco -3
This is the walking wounded game. The 49ers are without their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo; top two defensive ends, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford; potentially three of their top cornerbacks in Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, and K’Waun Williams; starting middle linebacker Dre Greenlaw; and two of their top running backs in Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman. While tight end George Kittle might return from a knee sprain, his backup, tight end Jordan Reed, was also injured last week. This group is mangled, and the only team in the league that can compete with its injured list is Philadelphia.
The Eagles are missing two of their best linemen, Brandon Brooks and Andre Dillard, for the season and their other two best linemen, Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce, are playing injured. Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery, Jalen Reagor, DeSean Jackson, and JJ Arcega Whiteside are all injured, plus tight end Dallas Goedert. These teams are doing triage.
The difference is that the 49ers have dominated despite being hurt, while the Eagles have played bad even by their lowered standards. And the bulk of Philadelphia’s bad play is Carson Wentz’s fault. Even accounting for injuries, the advanced numbers suggest Wentz is overwhelmingly to blame. Actually watching the team suggests the same. As Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus pointed out this week, Wentz has been inaccurate this season, even when he is making the right reads.
Carson Wentz is not a dummy... he's just shocking inaccurate. I put together a compilation of very good Carson Wentz decisions that we're undone by poor throws.— seth galina (@pff_seth) September 25, 2020
6 plays against Washington in 138 seconds:
The Eagles can’t win with Wentz missing open wide receivers or having the league’s worst passer rating from a clean pocket. The 49ers are banged up, but they will be happy to let the Eagles beat themselves.
Monday Night Football
Atlanta Falcons (0-3) @ Green Bay Packers (3-0)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Packers -5
The Falcons lost games when they held more than a 95 percent win probability in each of the past two weeks. The stunning back-to-back losses have made late-game collapses the defining feature of the Falcons franchise. Atlanta needs a win to prevent an 0-4 start that would all but assure that they’ll miss the playoffs, but they also need a win just for their personal and professional pride—not to mention restoring some semblance of respect from their fans. At least Cleveland Browns fans could tune out the awfulness of their team for the past 20 years. But Falcons fans will never have confidence in a big lead ever again. It is the kind of trust issue that could extend to other parts of their lives. So no pressure, Atlanta.
But on the other side is the Packers, who are looking to issue a mercy killing. Wide receiver Davante Adams might miss this contest with a hamstring issue after not playing last week against the Saints on Sunday Night Football. In his absence, Packers wide receiver Allen Lazard had a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown, but Lazard had surgery for a core muscle injury this week and is out indefinitely. Green Bay’s only other receivers are Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Malik Taylor (a 2019 undrafted free agent), and Darrius Shepherd (a former practice squadder). Rodgers will have to rely even heavier than usual on running back Aaron Jones, who has been a key to Green Bay’s passing attack. In theory, this is a strong time for the Falcons defense to right itself against a limited Packers offense. In reality, the Falcons are probably in line for another embarrassing loss.