This week is Rivalry Week in the NFL. Steelers vs. Ravens, Bills vs. Patriots, and Packers vs. Vikings are all happening at 1 p.m. ET; and Seahawks vs. 49ers is at 4:25 p.m. ET. Unfortunately there is a price for an excellent slate of afternoon games: Dallas plays Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football. But before the sun sets on decency, there will be wall-to-wall divisional football, beginning with the best divisional rivalry of the past 20 years.
Bye: Arizona, Houston, Jacksonville, Washington
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) @ Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Ravens -6.5
Both of these teams have returned to their hard-hitting defensive roots. The Steelers have the no. 2 defense in the NFL by efficiency and field perhaps the league’s best defensive line, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt. Baltimore is no. 3 in defense and, not to be outdone, just traded for Vikings defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. These teams are each sporting their best defenses since the late-aughts peaks of Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu.
The Steelers got off to a 5-0 start this season largely because Ben Roethlisberger was playing smart football and not turning the ball over. That changed last week. Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and played recklessly in a 27-24 win against the Titans. Pittsburgh narrowly managed to avoid a loss (mostly thanks to Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski missing a game-winning field goal), but Roethlisberger can’t play loose with the ball against a tight Ravens team. Fortunately, the Steelers offense has plenty of playmakers.
Pittsburgh has long had a reputation for turning lightly hyped receivers into stars: Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown. Now the Steelers have a whole group of this type of player. Second-year receiver Diontae Johnson and rookie receiver Chase Claypool have relegated fan favorite JuJu Smith-Schuster to the third option on his own team, and second-rounder James Washington is the fourth receiver on this deep squad. But this week, Pittsburgh takes on a strong Baltimore secondary that features cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is playing at an All-Pro level (he co-leads the league in forced fumbles). The Ravens also have a reinforced front seven after trading for Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell this offseason and adding Ngakoue last week.
There’s plenty at stake in this game, both in terms of 2020 implications and the rivalry’s recent history. Pittsburgh’s 2019 season ended with an 8-8 record and the Steelers missed the playoffs after the Ravens smacked them 28-10 in Week 17. “That was a miserable experience in Baltimore last year,” Watt told Peter King of NBC Sports this week. “And it left a bad taste in our mouths.” Expect Pittsburgh to seek revenge.
New England Patriots (2-4) @ Buffalo Bills (5-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bills -3
The Buffalo Bills have not won the AFC East since 1995, a year before QB Josh Allen was born. A win this week would bring this team a step closer to ending that drought, but the Bills beating the Patriots is a rare occurrence. Since Bill Belichick became Patriots head coach in 2000, there have been the same amount of Bills wins over the Patriots (five) as presidential elections. The Bills are 5-35 against the Patriots in the past 20 years, including 3-29 in the past 16 seasons.
But the Bills couldn’t be catching the Patriots at a better time. New England was thrashed by San Francisco last week, losing 33-6. That was the worst home loss New England has had since the 1990s. The Patriots could not tackle, control their gaps, or fight blocks—and there are few veterans in the front seven who can be counted on for improvement. The Patriots lost a half-dozen key defensive contributors this offseason and are now relying on young players to step up. So far, they haven’t. The offense isn’t looking promising, either. Quarterback Cam Newton can’t throw accurate passes, his receivers can’t get open, and his tight ends can’t do much of anything. If the Patriots were wearing Jets jerseys last week, nobody would have noticed a difference.
The Bills are not playing their finest football, either. Last week, Buffalo beat the Jets 18-10 but left somewhere between 20 and 40 points on the board, depending on how you count. Teams can get away with that against Adam Gase, but not Belichick. But if Buffalo converts its opportunities into scores, this group will have a good chance to win, and that would be historic. After 19 years, the Bills might finally be freed from the New England Patriots’ prison. Just call them Jean Valjean.
A Patriots loss, meanwhile, would give the team a 2-5 record and a (roughly) 85 percent chance of missing the playoffs. New England hasn’t done that since 2008, when Tom Brady tore his ACL and was replaced by Matt Cassel. But even that year New England went 11-5 and essentially became the best team to ever miss the playoffs. This New England team might legitimately be bad, and the Patriots haven’t been bad (or below .500) since Belichick’s first Pats team went 5-11 in 2000.
Minnesota Vikings (1-5) @ Green Bay Packers (5-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Packers -6.5
In a week of rich divisional rivalries with playoff implications, this one is an impostor. When these teams met in Week 1, the Packers pounded Minnesota into a pulp (the Vikings piled on points in garbage time, but don’t be fooled by the respectable 43-34 final score). This go-around may not end much better. Minnesota has already traded away defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and waved the white flag on its season, and a loss this week would drop the team to 1-6 and all but eliminate even the remotest possibility of making the playoffs.
New York Jets (0-7) @ Kansas City Chiefs (6-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Kansas City -21 (now -19.5)
Over/Under Le’Veon Bell tweets after the game: 1.5
This point spread opened with the Chiefs favored by 21 points. Twenty one points. That would have been the eighth-biggest point spread in the Pro Football Reference database, which goes back to 1978. It has since “dropped” to 19.5 points, which is merely tied for the 14th-biggest spread of the past 42 years (in case you’re wondering, 11 of the 14 teams favored by 19 or more points have covered the spread).
But this game is not about numbers. It’s about revenge. Le’Veon Bell will play against the Jets just weeks after beefing with head coach Adam Gase until the team released him from his big contract. Going from the worst team in the league to the best has its benefits. Bell’s first carry for Kansas City last week went for 16 yards. He had just one carry for 16-plus yards in his entire Jets career. And if you’re wondering how the Jets are doing without Bell, New York gained negative 4 total yards in the second half on Sunday despite starting the third quarter with a 13-yard run. The Bell tolls for Adam Gase.
Tennessee Titans (5-1) @ Cincinnati Bengals (1-5-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Titans -3.5 (now -5.5)
Joe Burrow gets sacked on almost 10 percent of his dropbacks, one of the highest rates in the NFL. But the Titans pass rush is almost nonexistent, so this game might give Burrow his best shot of staying upright all year.
Las Vegas Raiders (3-3) @ Cleveland Browns (5-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Browns -3.5
The Raiders struggle to rush the passer or cover receivers, which is a bad combination. It also makes the Browns a particularly bad matchup. Cleveland’s offensive line has the highest pass-blocking grade on Pro Football Focus, and the Raiders have produced just seven sacks in six games, the second-worst mark in the NFL. The Browns won’t have Odell Beckham Jr. in the lineup after the star wideout tore his ACL last week, but Baker Mayfield should have plenty of time in the pocket to find someone else. It’s just up to him to recognize that.
Indianapolis Colts (4-2) @ Detroit Lions (3-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Colts -3
After an 0-2 start, the Lions could be firmly back in the playoff hunt with a win this week. But they might be better off firing Matt Patricia, and ripping off a win streak could be the teamwide version of Todd Gurley falling into the end zone: usually a good thing, but in this specific instance, it is bad.
Los Angeles Rams (5-2) @ Miami Dolphins (3-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Rams -3.5
Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will make his first NFL start this week, beginning a new era for the Miami Dolphins. The fifth pick out of Alabama is the most important Dolphin since Dan Marino. Tagovailoa (pronounced tongue-oh-vae-loa) was one of the best passers in college football history, finishing with the all-time Division I record in touchdowns per throw, yards per throw, and passer efficiency rating. He’s a lefty—a remarkably rare trait among NFL quarterbacks—and his throws have a gorgeous spiral as tight as Blake Bortles’s was loose. But Tagovailoa’s college career ended with a hip injury, and now his first game action in nearly a full year will come against the Rams and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. Previous Dolphins starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was getting rid of the ball faster than all but two quarterbacks in the NFL, according to PFF. Tua will need to be similarly decisive on Sunday to avoid getting mauled.
Los Angeles Chargers (2-4) @ Denver Broncos (2-4)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick ’em
On the surface, this looks like a rivalry between two AFC West doormats, but the Chargers have been thoroughly entertaining this season while the Broncos have been anything but. This game might be in jeopardy after a Chargers player tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday.
San Francisco 49ers (4-3) @ Seattle Seahawks (5-1)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seahawks -6.5
This is the only divisional rivalry currently on par with Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Even though Richard Sherman won’t play in this game due to injury, this still looks like one of the best games of the week.
The NFC West was a laughing stock 10 years ago, but it’s now the league’s best division. Just look at the standings: The 49ers are last place with a 4-3 record, but they would be in first place in the NFC East and tied for second in two other divisions.
San Francisco has so far managed to stay above .500 despite being the most injured non-NFC East team in football. The 49ers were already without star defensive end Nick Bosa, cornerback Richard Sherman, and running back Raheem Mostert last week before they lost no. 1 receiver Deebo Samuel and lead running back Jeff Wilson due to injury (running back Tevin Coleman is also on injured reserve and may or may not return this week). But head coach Kyle Shanahan is a master of malleability, and he is facing a Seahawks defense that has allowed the second-most passing yards and third-most yards per play this season. The 49ers may need to take advantage of that defense to keep pace with Seattle. Russell Wilson has 22 passing touchdowns in six games, putting him on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 55 from 2013.
New Orleans Saints (4-2) @ Chicago Bears (5-2)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -3
On paper, the Saints are better in every aspect of the game than Chicago. But New Orleans has not played to its potential this season. Top receiver and reigning Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas has not played since Week 1, mostly due to a sprained ankle and hamstring injury, but also due to the fact that he was disciplined after punching a teammate. Fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders has tested positive for COVID-19 and has stated publicly that he’s afraid his symptoms will get worse.
The Bears offense, meanwhile, was embarrassed by the Rams on Monday Night Football, in more ways than one. During the game, announcer Brian Griese relayed a story that QB Nick Foles often hears play calls from head coach Matt Nagy that Foles knows won’t work, usually because Nagy doesn’t understand the on-field limitations of Chicago’s blocking ability. Foles has since disputed these comments, but what is indisputable is that Chicago’s offense is broken. This group has the highest percentage of throws thrown into tight windows in the NFL, a sign that Chicago’s plays are not working. The Saints defense has disappointed this season, but the Bears might give them a bounceback opportunity.
Sunday Night Football
Dallas Cowboys (2-5) @ Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Eagles -3
Over/under Ben DiNucci google searches this week: 17 billion
Remember that scene in The Da Vinci Code where the guy whips himself as punishment? That is all of us who watch this game. The NFC East is on its way to being perhaps the worst division in NFL history, and the winner of this game will, by default, be in first place. Speaking of which, let’s play a game: What is this graph?
Take your best guess.
… This graph shows the number of Google searches for “Ben DiNucci” over the last week (though if you guessed Google searches for “Adele Skepta,” you were close). Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott is out for the season with a broken ankle, and backup quarterback Andy Dalton will likely miss this game after suffering a concussion on a brutal hit last week. That means the Dallas Cowboys, the most valuable sports franchise in the world, will be starting Ben DiNucci, a seventh-round rookie who was drafted with the 231st pick in April, at quarterback on Sunday Night Football. Back in January, when DiNucci was still in college, he was randomly on an elevator with new Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy. DiNucci introduced himself and told McCarthy that he had played basketball for McCarthy’s brother in eighth grade. Three months later, the Cowboys drafted him.
Worse than this QB situation, though, is the fact that three of Dallas’s starting offensive linemen are on injured reserve. Not only is DiNucci in this compromising situation, but the Cowboys will likely need him to be productive. Dallas’s defense has given up 34.7 points per game this season, the second-highest mark through seven games in NFL history. This week Dallas traded away defensive end Everson Griffen and released defensive tackle Dontari Poe and cornerback Daryl Worley. Dallas could take the division lead with a win this week, but it feels like their season is already over. Eagles defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham could make that a reality on Sunday night.
Monday Night Football
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) @ New York Giants (1-6)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bucs -8.5
Giants starting left guard Will Hernandez was placed on the COVID-19 list this week, and as of Thursday, all but four of the team’s offensive linemen were being kept away from the practice facility. It is unclear whether this game will happen as scheduled.
This is the second week in a row the Buccaneers have had a prime-time opponent with a potential coronavirus outbreak on their offensive line. Last week, the Raiders sent all of their starting linemen home after left tackle Trent Brown tested positive for coronavirus. The rest of the line tested negative and was eligible to play in the game, though it was moved from Sunday Night Football to an afternoon time slot. A Buccaneers equipment manager has also tested positive for coronavirus this week.