There aren’t many great games this week, but almost all of them feature something interesting. Jameis Winston (and Taysom Hill?) will take over at quarterback for the Saints as Drew Brees recovers from a collapsed lung. Cincinnati-Washington showcases Joe Burrow and Chase Young, the top two picks from this year’s draft. Patriots-Texans is the oldest coaching matchup in NFL history, with Bill Belichick facing his former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. The Chiefs will try to avenge their only loss of the season against the Raiders on Sunday Night Football, and Tom Brady faces Sean McVay’s Rams on Monday. But we start with the most intriguing game on the slate: Baltimore’s rematch with the Tennessee Titans, who stunned the Ravens in the playoffs in January.
Byes: Bears, Bills, Giants, 49ers
Tennessee Titans (6-3) @ Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Ravens -7
The Baltimore Ravens finished 2019 with a 14-2 record and the AFC’s no. 1 seed. They had the best rushing offense in modern NFL history and a 22-year-old quarterback sensation who led the league in touchdown passes and won the MVP award unanimously. Then the Ravens got to the playoffs and were immediately trounced by the Titans. Lamar Jackson threw an interception on Baltimore’s first drive of the game and failed to convert a fourth-and-1 on the team’s second. Tennessee turned those two turnovers into a 14-point lead and eventually won 28-12.
“You can’t underestimate no team, no opponent, and that’s what we did,” Jackson told the Load Management podcast in June. “They caught us by surprise. That’s all it was.”
This time around, the Ravens are looking for revenge—and they’re also hoping to reclaim their identity. Last week, Baltimore lost to New England 23-17 in a game the Ravens were heavily favored to win. The Ravens’ 17 points were their fewest in a regular season game since Jackson took over from Joe Flacco in 2018. There was biblical rain pouring down during the contest, but weather can’t be blamed for the Patriots outscheming, outcoaching, and outplaying Baltimore. The Ravens team that took the league by storm last year has been watered down.
There were a lot of reasons why Baltimore was so good last year, and there are a lot of reasons why they haven’t returned to that level this year. Injuries have mounted on the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary. The team did not acquire any significant pass catchers this offseason, and none of the ones on the roster have stepped into a larger role. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s play-calling has gotten stale, and Lamar Jackson said on The Rich Eisen Show last week that opposing teams have been calling out Baltimore’s plays. Defenses are countering the Ravens by putting better athletes on the field to match Lamar’s speed and using more man coverage, daring Jackson to throw accurate passes. These are strategies that teams have just started to figure out, but they’re quickly becoming mainstream, and Baltimore’s coaches have not found an answer. Lamar’s limited arm strength, Roman’s stagnant planning, and injuries to contributors have all combined to give the Ravens as many losses this season as they had all of last season, including the playoffs.
We’ll see if any of that matters against Tennessee, whose offensive line is banged up and whose defense and special teams are among the sloppiest in football. No team has paid so much for pass rushing and gotten so little in return. The Titans shelled out more than $20 million in free agency this year for Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney, and all they got was this stupid T-shirt (plus 11 team sacks, which ranks second to last in the NFL). Tennessee is allowing opposing offenses to convert on more than half of their third downs, which would be an NFL record across a full season.
The next two games are going to tell us who these Ravens really are. On Sunday, they face the Tennessee team that sucker punched their Super Bowl chances. Then they play the AFC North–leading Steelers on Thanksgiving Day. The Ravens are facing their toughest stretch of the year just a week after they were embarrassed in a monsoon—but when it rains, it pours.
Cincinnati Bengals (2-6-1) @ Washington Football Team (2-7)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick Em
This game features the top two picks from this year’s draft—former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and former Ohio State defensive end Chase Young—both of whom were horrible last week. “We’re in that game if I don’t suck in the second half,” Burrow said after a 36-10 loss to Pittsburgh that saw the QB average just 5.3 yards per attempt. Young was even worse: He committed a roughing-the-passer penalty with 12 seconds left in Sunday’s game against the Lions, and two plays later, Detroit kicked a 59-yard field goal to beat Washington 30-27. “Rookie mistake,” Young said after the game.
Given Cincinnati’s porous blocking, Young and Burrow will likely spend a lot of time together on Sunday. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes will probably win.
Atlanta Falcons (3-6) @ New Orleans Saints (7-2)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -7.5
Brees is 41 years old and currently dealing with a collapsed lung and five broken ribs. Last week, he became the first person in human history to have his body language quote a Lethal Weapon movie: “I’m too old for this shit.”
Tom Brady’s unprecedented play at 43 years old makes most people forget that Brees is trying to win a Super Bowl at 41. But now the QB will be out at least two weeks with his injuries, and it’s up to Jameis Winston, the former Buccaneers quarterback who became the first player to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season last year, to lead the charge. Winston is on an expiring contract, and this will be an audition to see whether he can be a starter next season, either in New Orleans or somewhere else. But the real question is how much Sean Payton will choose to use Taysom Hill, the Saints quarterback/tight end/fullback/special teams backup/hot dog vendor.
While Hill is not going to be the main quarterback, it will be interesting to see how often he and Winston are on the field at the same time. Fielding two athletic quarterbacks at once could be the next frontier in football. And at a minimum, it’ll be fun to watch someone throw a pass, catch a touchdown, land a pancake block, and make a special teams tackle all in the same game. Hill is a throwback player, but the team’s in Winston’s hands.
Philadelphia Eagles (3-5-1) @ Cleveland Browns (6-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Browns -2
Four years ago, the Browns traded the second pick in the 2016 draft to Philadelphia, and the Eagles used it to draft North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. Less than a year and a half later, Wentz was an MVP favorite for the Eagles, and Browns fans were distraught that they had not drafted Wentz themselves. The Eagles won the Super Bowl that season, and the Browns went 1-15.
It’s amazing how quickly things change. This year, Wentz is playing the worst football of his career, and he’s trusting all the wrong instincts. Adding insult to his many injuries, Wentz’s favorite player growing up, Brett Favre, said last week that the Eagles should have kept Nick Foles over Wentz (nothing stings more than your childhood idol saying you suck). Eagles fans who were once jubilant about their Super Bowl win have switched over to a more familiar mood: turning their internalized despair into rage.
Things aren’t much better in Cleveland, where Baker Mayfield now looks less like a franchise savior and more like a liability under center. Perhaps both fan bases can find solace in the fact that whatever choice they made at quarterback, it would have been the wrong one.
New England Patriots (4-5) @ Houston Texans (2-7)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Texans -3 (now Patriots -2)
Back in the Cretaceous period, Romeo Crennel was the defensive coordinator for New England’s initial Super Bowl trilogy. Last month, Crennel replaced Bill O’Brien as interim head coach of the Houston Texans. At 73 years young, Crennel is the oldest coach in NFL history, and this meeting with his former boss is the oldest coaching matchup in league history.
But Bill Belichick is not known for warm reunions. The Patriots are coming off a big win against Baltimore, while the Texans are a disaster in most phases of the game, having scored seven points against the Browns while watching DeAndre Hopkins make the play of the year for the Cardinals. The Texans are reportedly considering keeping Crennel as coach for next year. But if Crennel is a dinosaur, Belichick might be the meteor.
Detroit Lions (4-5) @ Carolina Panthers (3-7)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Panthers -2
This game features two last-place teams with matching color schemes and gruff, bearded head coaches named Matt who are trying to win despite their quarterbacks dealing with injuries. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will play in this game after X-rays on his throwing thumb came back negative (“negative” in the good way). But Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be a game-time decision after suffering a mild MCL sprain last week. If Bridgewater can’t suit up, backups Will Grier and P.J. Walker could each see playing time in this game. Walker was an XFL star, while Grier played at West Virginia and is the least famous member of his family. As if that isn’t bleak enough, Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey has already been ruled out of this game with a shoulder injury.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Steelers -10
Less than three years ago, the Jaguars beat the Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs to advance to the AFC championship game. That 45-42 Jacksonville win was the last game Le’Veon Bell played as a Steeler, and in many ways, it marked the end of the Killer Bees era for Pittsburgh. But if the Steelers have changed since then, the Jaguars have been sold for spare parts. Nine of Jacksonville’s 11 starting defenders in that game are on longer on the team.
Even so, the Jaguars shed their doormat label last week when they nearly beat the Packers in Green Bay. The team looked feisty—especially wide receiver Keelan Cole, who returned a punt for a touchdown before catching a second score. It’s a bad time for the Steelers to meet a scrappy team. Pittsburgh is a wobbly 9-0, and Ben Roethlisberger looks even wobblier after injuring both knees against the Cowboys. Pittsburgh has relied on throwing the ball this season, but the team may try to get its struggling ground game going against the Jaguars. A loss for the Steelers would add much bigger stakes to their Thanksgiving Day matchup with Baltimore.
Miami Dolphins (6-3) @ Denver Broncos (3-6)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick ‘Em (Now Dolphins -3.5)
The Miami Dolphins would make the playoffs if the season ended today, an amazing achievement for a team who was playing worse than an expansion franchise in the first six weeks of last season. Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has looked solid in his past two starts, and head coach Brian Flores is on track to win Coach of the Year given what he’s done with a Dolphins defense and special teams that keep delivering big plays.
The Broncos are trending in the opposite direction. Quarterback Drew Lock is struggling with his accuracy after a shoulder injury, and Denver’s defense allowed 203 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to the Raiders last week. But the Dolphins’ run blocking is back, and they have the worst running backs in the NFL, so Tua might have to defeat Denver through the air. Tua managing that is more likely than Lock figuring out Flores’s blitz packages.
New York Jets (0-9) @ Los Angeles Chargers (2-7)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chargers -10.5
The Chargers always lose close games, while the Jets always get blown out. Who will prevail? Probably not the Jets, who are playing Joe Flacco over the injured Sam Darnold.
Green Bay Packers (7-2) @ Indianapolis Colts (6-3)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Colts -2.5
Green Bay nearly lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, and after the game, head coach Matt LaFleur said he was concerned that it took until the final drive of the game for the team to show some life. “We have got to do a better job from before we start the game to show that kind of energy, show that kind of emotion, show that kind of support for one another that we saw at the end of the game,” LaFleur told reporters. “And if we don’t get that, we’re not going to be at our best.”
This has been a consistent problem for the Packers this year, and they’ll need to find their juice on the road this week against the Colts. Wide receiver Davante Adams expects to play after tweaking his ankle against the Jaguars, and the Packers might have wide receiver Allen Lazard back after he was activated from injured reserve. Adams and Lazard haven’t played together since Week 2.
The Packers face a tough Colts defense that has emerged as one of the league’s best under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Indy has a top-five pass defense and rush defense, according to Football Outsiders, and has been led by excellent play from defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, inside linebacker Darius Leonard, and a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate safety Julian Blackmon. The Colts may not have the reputation of Pittsburgh or Baltimore, but this is one of the league’s best defenses going up against Aaron Rodgers.
Dallas Cowboys (2-7) @ Minnesota Vikings (4-5)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Vikings -9.5
Andy Dalton is back at quarterback for the Cowboys after suffering a concussion and then testing positive for coronavirus last month. He takes over a 2-7 team that is somehow still in the playoff hunt in the NFC East, where the 3-5-1 Eagles lead the division. But running back Ezekiel Elliott has a hamstring issue, and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who is returning from injured reserve, will have a tough matchup against Minnesota receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Dallas is allowing a ridiculous 32.2 points per game this season, the worst in the NFL and one of the 10 worst marks in the past 50 years. Hopefully Dallas used its bye week well.
Sunday Night Football
Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) @ Las Vegas Raiders (6-3)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chiefs -7
Over/under: 59.5 (now 57)
The Raiders have 10 defenders on the COVID-19 list this week after defensive end Clelin Ferrell tested positive for the virus. While Ferrell will almost certainly not play on Sunday, those who had close contact with him could play as long as they continue to test negative. Kansas City also has both of its starting offensive tackles on the COVID-19 list as close contacts, though they’ll also be eligible to play if they continue to test negative.
Both teams are dealing with potential absences, but the Raiders are at a significantly bigger disadvantage. The Chiefs are coming off of their bye week, so they have had extra prep time, while double-digit Raiders defenders haven’t taken the field since Sunday. Making matters worse, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid seems pissed that the Raiders’ team bus did a victory lap around Arrowhead Stadium after the Raiders beat the Chiefs 40-32 in Week 5. Reid being mad for this game is the last thing the Raiders want.
Monday Night Football
Los Angeles Rams (6-3) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bucs -3.5
Tom Brady and the Bucs offense vs. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and the Rams defense on one side of the ball; Sean McVay’s offense against Todd Bowles’s defense on the other. This is a great Monday Night matchup, and it begins with the coaches. Halftime adjustments are one of the hallmarks of good coaching, and these teams are the top two in the league in outscoring their opponents in the second half this season.
The Rams rank first because of their defense. L.A. hasn’t allowed a second-half touchdown since Week 3 against the Bills, and the team has given up just three second-half field goals in the last six games. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, average the second-most points in the second half this season (14.6), second only to Seattle. But the Rams just played the Seahawks last week and became the only team to hold them to fewer than four touchdowns in a game. Not only are the Rams getting big plays from Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but cornerback Darious Williams has three interceptions so far this season and the lowest passer rating in the entire NFL when targeted.
The Rams, meanwhile, have become the league’s premier rushing team by DVOA despite releasing Todd Gurley this offseason. But the Buccaneers have the league’s top defense overall and the second-best rushing defense, led by a defensive line that features Shaq Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, and Jason Pierre-Paul, plus perhaps the league’s best linebacking duo of Lavonte David and Devin White. The Rams just lost starting left tackle and team captain Andrew Whitworth to a knee injury, so they’re going against the league’s best front seven at less than full strength. But the Bucs may be in a similar situation facing Aaron Donald without left guard Ali Marpet, who missed the last two games in concussion protocol and may miss this game.
These are just about the last two defensive lines you’d want to face at less than full strength on the offensive line, and how the coaches adjust in the trenches will be the story of the game. Brady and McVay are the eye candy, but the defenders are poised to star.