Week 7 of this NFL season is a trip down memory lane. Jon Gruden is facing Tampa Bay, the team he beat the Raiders with in Super Bowl XXXVII. Jimmy Garoppolo is playing in New England three years after the Patriots traded him to San Francisco. And Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is going up against the Saints after starting five games for them last season. But of all the memories, the first one to explore is a game that was supposed to happen three weeks ago.
Byes: Ravens, Colts, Dolphins, Vikings
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) @ Tennessee Titans (5-0)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Titans -1
This game was supposed to be played earlier this month, but it got postponed when a number of Titans players and staffers tested positive for COVID-19. Many people (Steelers fans) wanted Tennessee to have to forfeit the contest, but the NFL changed around Pittsburgh’s schedule (and Baltimore’s, and Buffalo’s) to avoid canceling it. Last week, the Titans returned from a 17-day layoff where they were mostly not practicing (or, uh, were not supposed to be practicing) and shellacked the Bills on Tuesday. Then, just five days later, they beat Houston on Sunday and showed that practice is overrated (or maybe secret practices are underrated). Now, three weeks after this game was supposed to happen, the Steelers and Titans are the AFC’s only remaining unbeaten teams.
This season, Tennessee has been an on-field juggernaut. Head coach Mike Vrabel is a sharp coach, and Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has been perhaps the league’s best play-caller over the past 12 months. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has reinvented his career, finally reaching the potential that made him the no. 8 pick of the 2012 draft. Running back Derrick Henry, a Ferrari engine trapped in a steamroller body, has as many 200-yard rushing games since 2018 as everyone else in the NFL combined. Second-year receiver A.J. Brown might be one of five best in the league at the position. Some teams create buzz, but the Titans make you feel buzzed. This week, though, Tennessee is taking on a sobering Steelers defense.
Pittsburgh is 5-0 for just the second time in franchise history. This defense is the second best in the league by DVOA, and features the top run defense. The Steelers have probably the league’s best defensive line, led by T.J. Watt, and that group is emboldened by defensive coordinator Keith Butler calling blitzes on almost half of Pittsburgh’s plays. The team’s passing defense is not as strong as last season’s, but thus far the run defense is even stronger, and it will have to be against Henry and the Titans.
Both Tennessee’s offense and Pittsburgh’s defense lost crucial players to torn ACLs last week. Taylor Lewan, the Titans’ best offensive lineman, went down in the third quarter of the team’s game against Houston and was replaced by backup tackle Ty Sambrailo. Two plays later, Sambrailo gave up a strip sack to J.J. Watt, and now he’ll see the other (and now superior) Watt brother. Pittsburgh’s injury is nearly as devastating. The Steelers lost Devin Bush, the second-year inside linebacker who called their defensive plays. Bush was the glue in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense, and without him, things may come apart. Robert Spillane will fill Bush’s spot, but there is no replacing Bush’s speed.
Tennessee’s running offense against Pittsburgh’s run defense is strength on strength, and the game may come down to which team best covers its new weakness.
The Early Slate
Detroit Lions (2-3) @ Atlanta Falcons (1-5)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Falcons -1.5
This game will be important in retrospect if:
- The Lions lose and fire Matt Patricia
- The Falcons trade away Julio Jones after the game
Otherwise, it’s more important for fantasy football than for real football.
Cleveland Browns (4-2) @ Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Browns -4.5
The Browns are trying to rebound against the Bengals for the second time this season.
Week 1: Cleveland loses on the road to division-rival Baltimore, 38-6.
Week 2: Cleveland beats the Bengals, 35-30.
Week 6: Cleveland loses on the road to division-rival Pittsburgh, 38-7.
Week 7: Cleveland ??? the Bengals.
Baker Mayfield played through a rib injury last week and was benched before the fourth quarter after taking too many hits. But the injury does not change the fact that Mayfield made an astonishing number of mental mistakes in the first quarter. The good news for Baker is that he’s going from playing Pittsburgh, which has the league’s highest pressure rate (39 percent), to Cincinnati, which has the league’s lowest pressure rate (17 percent), according to Pro Football Reference. The running game might be more crucial, however. The Browns are the second-highest-graded run blocking team via Pro Football Focus, and while they were beaten by Pittsburgh’s top-rated run defense, the Bengals’ run defense ranks 21st. And they might be worse than 21st at the moment, considering that defensive tackle D.J. Reader and Sam Hubbard are on injured reserve.
A big Browns rushing day could translate to more passing attempts for Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who has been sacked 24 times in six games, second only to Carson Wentz.
Carolina Panthers (3-3) @ New Orleans Saints (3-2)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -7
After a game of political hardball with the mayor of New Orleans, the Saints will welcome 3,000 fans into the Superdome this week. The Saints so badly wanted fans back that they threatened to play home games at LSU’s stadium in Baton Rouge to have some kind of fan presence. The urgency is not just about money. No team misses their home crowd more than New Orleans. The Saints’ Superdome is usually deafening. It is so loud when opposing offenses get near the goal line that receivers and linemen often cannot hear their quarterbacks. But without fans in the stands, that strength has turned into a weakness. Aaron Rodgers hard counted the New Orleans defense into a crucial offsides penalty a few weeks ago, and the Saints no longer want to reckon with this new reality.
The Saints will also face a new reality in their opponent this week. Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater started five games for New Orleans last season, and Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady was an offensive assistant for the Saints in 2017 and 2018.
But New Orleans’s internal issues overshadow any reunions. Saints star receiver and reigning Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas missed three weeks with an ankle sprain, missed another game for punching teammate Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and now has a hamstring injury that might keep him out on Sunday. Even if Thomas returns, the best receiver in this game might be Robby Anderson. The former Jets receiver signed with the Panthers this offseason and is now second in the NFL in receiving yards, behind only Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins. Amazing what getting away from Adam Gase can do. Speaking of Adam Gase ...
Buffalo Bills (4-2) @ New York Jets (0-6)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bills -10.5 (now -12.5)
This might be the worst Jets team of all time. They have been outscored by 110 points through six games this season, the largest total in the league and equal to the point differential of the second- and third-worst teams (Jacksonville and Washington) combined. The only stat the Jets lead the league in is missed tackles. They have the fewest points in the NFL, average the fewest yards per play, and have the league’s worst record. New York enters this game as 12.5-point underdogs against the Bills, which makes sense considering the Jets have held a lead for less than 1 percent of their game time.
Somehow this team might be even worse than the numbers. Remove garbage time scores, and the offense has notched just three touchdowns in six games. Head coach Adam Gase was hired to be an offensive guru, but his performance with the Jets has been pathetic, and his unwillingness to take responsibility for New York’s ineptitude is inexcusable. Buffalo is coming off of two consecutive losses, but they are a well-coached team. Expect the Bills to stampede over New York.
Dallas Cowboys (2-4) @ Washington Football Team (1-5)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cowboys -3.5
The NFC East is finally quarantining. Dallas plays Washington on Sunday, and the Giants lost to the Eagles on Thursday night, giving the league’s other 28 teams—and the millions of Americans who like good football—a chance to socially distance from these franchises. Including Thursday’s game, the NFC East has a combined six wins this season, and three of those came against NFC East opponents. This group’s nondivision record is 2-15-1, and the most amazing part is that the winner of Sunday’s game will be at least the coleader of the division.
Dallas is in first place in the division but is in last place for morale. The Cowboys got demolished by Arizona on Monday Night Football this week, and afterward, players broke months of silence to shred the Dallas coaches. “Totally unprepared,” one anonymous player told NFL Network’s Jane Slater of the coaching staff. “They don’t teach. They don’t have any sense of adjusting on the fly.” Another anonymous player told Slater that the coaches “just aren’t good at their jobs.”
The coach with the most pressure to improve is defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Nolan’s defense has allowed 14 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns through the team’s first six games, which has not been done since … Mike Nolan’s 49ers did it in 2005. The offensive line is also in shambles: Dallas has undrafted free agents at both tackle spots, a rookie fourth-rounder at center, and All-Pro guard Zack Martin entered concussion protocol this week. Not to mention the fact that this offense leads the league in turnovers and the defense is tied for last in takeaways.
Despite all that, though, the Cowboys will stay in first place with a win—and given the fact that they play the Eagles next Sunday, it seems Dallas is following the rules of staying quarantined for two weeks.
Green Bay Packers (4-1) @ Houston Texans (1-5)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Packers -3.5
Green Bay got embarrassed by the Bucs on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers looked great until he threw a pick-six—just the third of his career—and then followed it up with another interception that was returned to the goal line (a pick-five-and-a-half). Even stranger than the interceptions was the fact that Tampa Bay defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh seemed to trash talk Rodgers enough to get into his head. But when asked whether last week’s loss meant the Packers were being figured out, Rodgers returned fire.
I wouldn’t want to be the Houston Texans this week. pic.twitter.com/XSuKx50Cui— Ryan Wood (@ByRyanWood) October 21, 2020
Tampa Bay has one of the strongest defenses in the NFL. Houston, uh, does not. The Bucs rank first in pass coverage per PFF and second in pass rush, while the Texans rank 24th and 22nd in those categories. Expect Mr. Rodgers to bounce back this week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) @ Las Vegas Raiders (3-2)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bucs -2.5
This game was initially scheduled for Sunday Night Football, where we would get to hear Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth discuss how Jon Gruden has spent his entire head coaching career leading these two pirate-themed franchises. But now the nostalgia feels irrelevant. Raiders left tackle Trent Brown is on the COVID-19 list, and the entire starting offensive line, plus starting safety Johnathan Abram, have been designated as high-risk contacts. It may not be clear if this game will be played until Sunday morning, and more positive tests from players could force the NFL to postpone the game altogether.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) @ Denver Broncos (2-3)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chiefs -10
Denver general manager John Elway watched the Chiefs acquire awe-inspiring athleticism at pass catcher and decided he wanted to copy them. Denver has drafted receivers Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and KJ Hamler, plus tight end Noah Fant in the first two rounds over the last three years. The team also signed running back Melvin Gordon this past offseason for his pass-catching skills. Last week, though, right before the Broncos were poised to meet Kansas City’s pass-catchers, the Chiefs flipped the script: Kansas City rushed more last week—46 times—than any Andy Reid–coached team ever. It was just the second time Kansas City ran the ball more than it passed since Mahomes became the starter. Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who ran 26 times for 161 yards (6.2 yards per attempt), said it was the parting of the Red Sea.
Reid isn’t changing Kansas City’s game plan just because the team signed Le’Veon Bell last week. The Chiefs are taking what the defenses are giving them. The Bills defense played their safeties so far back, they essentially dared the Chiefs to beat them in the running game.
“Once we saw how deep their linebackers and safeties and corners were playing, we knew that we had to run,” Mahomes told reporters after the game. “We really just stayed with it. If teams are gonna play us like this, you’re gonna see us running the football. We have the guys that can do it.”
That is how Kansas City managed 197 yards before contact.
“It takes me back to my college days at Texas Tech when we’re getting [eight defenders in pass coverage] and the linebackers are 6, 7 yards deep,” Mahomes said. “If teams are going to do that, we’ve got to run the football until they come up, and when they come up, we’re going to throw the football again.”
It’s up to Denver head coach Vic Fangio to decide how the Broncos are going to play this Chiefs offense, but Kansas City is happy to let Denver pick its poison.
San Francisco 49ers (3-3) @ New England Patriots (2-3)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Patriots -5
Almost three years ago to the week, Bill Belichick traded Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick. The move mystified Patriots fans at the time, and even a few Patriots employees. Garoppolo had looked like a star when he played in relief of Tom Brady, who was 40 years old, and the team had just traded promising third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett to the Colts for a receiver. A few months after the trade, ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported that Patriots owner Bob Kraft personally told Belichick to trade away Garoppolo and stick with Brady. Belichick was unhappy. He sent Garoppolo to the 49ers not because they would offer the best deal, but because he thought Garoppolo would do well under coach Kyle Shanahan (or maybe Belichick just wanted Garoppolo to get sponsored by Levi’s). On Sunday, Garoppolo returns to Foxborough for the first time.
Garoppolo will meet a Patriots team that is 15th in point differential this season, a rank that, across a full season, would be the team’s worst since Belichick’s first year as head coach in 2000. New England deserves a pass for its dud of a performance against Denver last week, given that the team had had just two practices in their previous 16 days because quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Stephon Gilmore tested positive for the coronavirus. But New England still has plenty of issues. Its receiving corps is still devoid of playmaking ability, the offensive line is injured and relying on rookies, and the team’s front seven defenders are visibly worse than the unit last year.
Shanahan is one of the few coaches who can match Belichick’s mind. Belichick may opt to focus on slowing 49ers tight end George Kittle, and it will be on Garoppolo to execute the offense without being able to rely on his top weapon. Three years after the Garoppolo trade, it will be fascinating to watch how Belichick attacks the player he may have preferred to be Brady’s successor.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) @ Los Angeles Chargers (1-4)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chargers -7.5
These two teams have interesting young quarterbacks, but they are at risk of falling out of relevance with another loss this week. The winner might earn the title of the NFL’s friskiest bad team.
Sunday Night Football
Seattle Seahawks (5-0) @ Arizona Cardinals (4-2)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seahawks -2.5
This game got flexed into Sunday Night Football after the Raiders—who were supposed to play the Bucs in this slot—had a positive COVID-19 test. Now instead of Tom Brady and Derek Carr in prime time, we get Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray.
The Seahawks’ passing offense has been dazzling, but the fact that Arizona’s win last week on Monday Night Football pushed the team’s record to 4-2 has obscured the fact that the Cardinals offense has been … fine. All the advanced stats say that the Cardinals passing game is middle-of-the-pack at best. If Murray and Co. want to fix that, there is no better time than against Seattle, which has given up the second-most passing yards in the NFL even though they’ve played only five games.
Monday Night Football
Chicago Bears (5-1) @ Los Angeles Rams (4-2)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Rams -7.5
You can’t tell the story of what happened to Sean McVay’s Rams without talking about the 2018 Bears game. That season, the Rams were rolling. They had just beaten the Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 on Monday Night Football to move to 10-1, and they looked like an obvious Super Bowl contender. The league’s youngest head coach was leading the NFL’s best offense like he was the next Bill Walsh. Two games later, though, the Bears shut the Rams down. Chicago had taken an innovation that Detroit’s Matt Patricia had figured out the week earlier: fight the Rams offense by using quarters coverage—where four defensive backs play zone and each take a fourth of the field. Patricia devised that strategy and lost, but Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio used it to perfection, as Chicago beat the Rams 15-6. When the Patriots wrecked the Rams 13-3 in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever, McVay immediately noticed that the Patriots were using large parts of the Bears’ game plan.
It didn’t take Sean McVay long to realize the Patriots took a page from the Bears’ book pic.twitter.com/uTzvDruMgH— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) February 9, 2019
Two years later, the Rams once again will meet the Bears in prime time. While this may not be widely thought of as a revenge game, the Rams have not forgotten that Chicago derailed their Super Bowl campaign. Fangio is no longer with the Bears, but Chicago is still a real rival for the Rams in the NFC. This team has one of the few defenders on Aaron Donald’s level (pass rusher Khalil Mack) and a cornerback who has a similar skill set to Jalen Ramsey (Kyle Fuller). Still, Chicago’s offense has been beyond disappointing this season, and the Bears are 5-1 despite outscoring their opponents by just 12 points. This time around, it is Donald and the Rams who could hold the Bears to single digits. If McVay wants to prove that L.A. can still make it to the top of the NFC, he’ll have to flip the script on Monday night.