Almost a third of the NFL’s 32 teams have been disrupted by the coronavirus in the past week. Thursday night’s game between Green Bay and San Francisco was played despite a combined half-dozen players from both teams being placed on the COVID-19 list (that included players who tested positive as well as those who had been exposed to the virus). Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is quarantining and will need to take a private plane to Minnesota to play the Vikings on Sunday. Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton was placed on the COVID-19 list on Tuesday and has been ruled out of Sunday’s game against the Steelers. The Denver Broncos canceled practice on Wednesday after positive tests for both team CEO and president Joe Ellis and president of football operations John Elway. Almost half of Baltimore’s starting defense is in quarantine after All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey tested positive. The Colts are meeting virtually after a staff member tested positive for the virus on Thursday, and the Kansas City Chiefs are in a similar situation. The Texans placed two defenders on the COVID-19 list; the Cardinals had two positive tests within their defense; and now the Bears are reeling after two of their offensive linemen tested positive. That is nine of 14 games this week that will be affected by COVID-19, and it is all part of a larger national trend. The United States recorded more than 100,000 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the country’s largest single-day total to date.
While the NFL has made it through the first half of the season without canceling any games and postponing just a few, the second half may be significantly more complicated. Numbers are expected to continue surging in the United States as the weather gets colder, and the NFL has fewer bye weeks left with which to rearrange team schedules. Anticipating these complications, the NFL competition committee discussed a contingency plan this week to expand the postseason to 16 teams if some regular season games are canceled.
With that backdrop, let’s get to a fraught Week 9 slate, beginning with the two all-time leading NFL passers facing each other on Sunday night.
Bye: Bengals, Browns, Rams, Eagles
Sunday Night Football
New Orleans Saints (5-2) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bucs -4.5
Tom Brady and Drew Brees top the lists of the most important NFL career passing stats. Brees is first and Brady is second in passing attempts, completions, and yards, while Brady is first and Brees is second in passing touchdowns. But Brady’s lead in that category is just one—561 to 560—so this record could conceivably bounce between the two in this game. Even if it doesn’t, this is still a remarkable matchup. The two all-time passing leaders are playing on Sunday Night Football at a combined 84 years old. If that isn’t rare enough, there are serious playoff implications on the line: A Saints win would give them the NFC South lead, while a Bucs win would put them two games ahead of New Orleans. A matchup like this may not happen again in football, or in any other American team sport.
These teams look quite different than when New Orleans beat Tampa Bay 34-23 in Week 1. The Bucs have gone 6-1 since that game, and Tampa Bay’s defense has emerged as one of the NFL’s best. Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who suffered a high ankle sprain in garbage time of that Week 1 win and a hamstring injury last month, may return against the Bucs this week.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown may make his debut for the Buccaneers on Sunday after he signed an incentive-filled one-year contract last week. Brown is eligible to play after serving an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy (players can serve suspensions while unemployed). The NFL suspended Brown in August after he pleaded no contest to a felony burglary with battery charge, along with two other misdemeanors, which resulted from a dispute with the driver of a moving truck in January. Brown is also being sued by a former trainer who said Brown sexually assaulted her twice in June 2017 and raped her in May 2018. Brown’s suspension was not related to the lawsuit, but the NFL could still discipline him for that, too. In addition to the trainer’s lawsuit, a second woman said last September that Brown sexually harassed her while she was painting a mural in his Pittsburgh home. After she shared her story with Sports Illustrated, Brown sent the woman threatening text messages. When those texts became public, Patriots owner Bob Kraft decided to cut Brown.
Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians, who coached Brown in Pittsburgh, said earlier this year that he did not want to sign Brown. He changed his mind, he says, because of Tampa Bay’s injuries. Receiving was the team’s strength entering the season, but the unit has been weakened by injuries to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard.
Seattle Seahawks (6-1) @ Buffalo Bills (6-2)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seahawks -2
Russell Wilson has 26 passing touchdowns through seven games, which is a historic pace. Here are the most passing touchdowns through the first seven games of a season in NFL history:
- Tom Brady, 2007: 27
- Russell Wilson, 2020: 26
- Peyton Manning, 2013: 25
Brady finished the 2007 season with the all-time single-season record of 50, which Manning broke in 2013 by throwing for 55. But more important than Wilson flirting with that record is Seattle’s 6-1 record. The Seahawks are in first place in the NFC West because Wilson is pure magic, and he is surrounded by an elite receiving duo of Tyler Lockett and emerging superstar DK Metcalf (LeBron James described Metcalf as “Baby Bron” on Instagram last week).
But Baby Bron will face a challenge on Sunday going up against Buffalo All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White. That might be the best one-on-one coverage showdown we will see all season, but the rest of Buffalo’s defense is no match for Wilson. The Bills were a force on that side of the ball in 2019, but this year, they’ve declined sharply.
Points allowed per game rank:
- 2019: 2nd
- 2020: 20th
Yards allowed per game rank:
- 2019: 3rd
- 2020: 16th
Football Outsiders’ DVOA rank:
- 2019: 7th
- 2020: 23rd
Wilson will likely slice and dice the Bills defense, and it will be on Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen to keep pace. Allen was a second-tier MVP candidate for most of September, but his decision-making sharply declined in October. Now Allen faces a Seahawks defense that was long known as the NFL’s best pass defense but is now the worst. The Seahawks have allowed 359 passing yards per game this season, the worst mark in NFL history through seven games. But Seattle’s skies may no longer be open for business. Seahawks safety Jamal Adams is returning this week from a groin injury that kept the All-Pro out the entirety of October. Seattle also traded for Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap this week, and he immediately becomes the best pass rusher on a defense that has struggled to disrupt the quarterback.
Baltimore Ravens (5-2) @ Indianapolis Colts (5-2)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Ravens -3
Ravens All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey tested positive for coronavirus this week and will miss this game. Baltimore also deemed seven other players as high-risk close contacts of Humphrey, including four starters: inside linebackers Patrick Queen and L.J. Fort, outside linebacker Matt Judon, and starting safety DeShon Elliott. They will all miss practice this week but are eligible to play if they continue to test negative until game day. The Ravens will also be without left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who is out for the year after suffering a significant ankle injury against Pittsburgh last week.
Baltimore is facing a stiff challenge in the Colts. The Ravens lost last week to Pittsburgh, the league’s second-best defense by DVOA, and now they play Indianapolis, the third-best defense by DVOA. Baltimore enters this contest without its best offensive lineman, plus starting right guard Tyre Phillips, who is on injured reserve. If Orlando Brown Jr. slides from right tackle to left tackle to replace Stanley, then Baltimore’s right side of the line will be relatively weak and a prime target for Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, perhaps the league’s best defensive tackle after Aaron Donald.
Chicago Bears (5-3) @ Tennessee Titans (5-2)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Titans -6.5
When the Titans are on offense, this is a great matchup. Derrick Henry colliding with Khalil Mack evokes football from a different era, or Greek mythology (a clash of Titans, if you will). But when the Titans are on defense, change the channel. The Bears have one of the league’s worst offenses while the Titans have one of the league’s worst defenses. Tennessee can’t rush the passer (the team has just seven sacks in seven games, tied for the second-lowest mark in the NFL) and Chicago can’t pass block (their Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade is 30th). The Bears’ blocking will be even worse considering starting center Cody Whitehair and reserve tackle Jason Spriggs will be out after positive coronavirus tests. Chicago could turn to seventh-round rookie Arlington Hambright at left guard and undrafted second-year lineman Alex Bars at either right guard or right tackle, but it would be the first career start for both players.
The most important (and saddest) tug of war will happen on third down. Chicago is converting a pathetic 35 percent of its third-down attempts, worse than every team in the NFL except the Jets (good rule of thumb: never be mentioned in the same sentence as the Jets). But as bad as the Bears offense is on third down, Tennessee’s defense is worse. The Titans are allowing their opponents to convert 62 percent of their third downs, which is not only the tops in the NFL, but would be the highest mark on record across a full season. If football were Mario Kart, the Bears offense against the Titans defense is like a bunch of banana peels lined across the Rainbow Road speedway.
Carolina Panthers (3-5) @ Kansas City Chiefs (7-1)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chiefs -10
This game is also in doubt after a member of the Chiefs’ staff tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday, leading the team to shut down its facility.
If it is played, it may mark the return of running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey suffered an ankle injury in Week 2, but Panthers coach Matt Rhule has said the back looks sharp in practice. Whatever Carolina does here though, it might not be enough to keep up with Kansas City’s offense.
Detroit Lions (3-4) @ Minnesota Vikings (2-5)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Vikings -2.5
Quarterback Matthew Stafford is in quarantine after a potential exposure to the coronavirus. Assuming he continues to test negative, he will have to take a private plane to Minnesota to start this game. Detroit will be missing top receiver Kenny Golladay in this matchup after he suffered a hip injury, but even with a quarantined quarterback and injured star wideout, the Lions’ passing offense is in better shape than the Vikings’ pass defense.
An already depleted Vikings cornerback group suffered even more injuries last week. Rookie third-rounder Cam Dantzler had a scary neck injury, cornerback Harrison Hand has a hamstring issue, and cornerback Mark Fields II punctured his lung after taking a Green Bay receiver’s cleat to the chest. Dantzler, who has full movement in his extremities, might play on Sunday.
Even if Dantzler does play—which would be shocking to see—the Vikings were already thin at cornerback. Their lone healthy players at the position are a ragtag crew of rookies and journeymen. The Vikings will need to lean on running back Dalvin Cook, who danced over the Packers defense last week and became the first player to score four touchdowns on his team’s first four drives in at least 50 years. He might need to do that again.
New York Giants (1-7) @ Washington Football Team (2-5)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Washington -3.5
When a deer is walking through the woods in the pitch black of night, its eyes fully dilate—an evolutionary advantage used to see in the darkness. But when a car comes, this trait becomes a curse. With the deer’s eyes adjusted for low light, a car’s headlights are literally blinding.
A similar phenomenon seems to happen to Daniel Jones. Like a deer walking on pavement, Jones is rarely aware of when he is in obvious danger. In 21 career games, he has fumbled an astonishing 23 times, and more than half the time he loses the ball, he seems shocked. What’s worse than Jones not sensing a pass rush is what happens when he does. At the first sign of trouble, Jones panics and unwittingly makes the worst decision possible. The hallmark of good quarterbacking is avoiding pass rushers while keeping your eyes downfield, constantly scanning the secondary for open receivers. Jones does the opposite. When he senses pressure, he stares directly at it, and then is unable to see anything else. Relatedly, Jones has 34 turnovers in his first 20 starts, the most since Ryan Leaf.
Washington has one of the league’s deepest defensive lines with five (!) first-round draft picks, and they will be the headlights shining on Jones during this game.
Like the Giants, Washington also drafted a quarterback in the first round of the 2019 draft, and despite what Ron Rivera says, the team might be experiencing even worse remorse than New York. Dwayne Haskins plunged from starter to third string on the depth chart last month and reportedly garnered no interest at the trade deadline. But at least Washington dropping Haskins on the depth chart suggests they have no illusions about Haskins’s future with the team. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, meanwhile, needs to be honest with himself about Jones’s shortcomings, especially if the team has another high pick in this year’s draft.
Denver Broncos (3-4) @ Atlanta Falcons (2-6)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Falcons -3
The Denver Broncos embarrassed the Chargers on Sunday by coming back from a 24-3 deficit to win. Now they face Atlanta.
Houston Texans (1-6) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Texans -4
This game features more draft considerations than playoff implications.
Las Vegas Raiders (4-3) @ Los Angeles Chargers (2-5)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chargers -3
Justin Herbert has looked fantastic so far this season and should get another opportunity to shine this week against the Raiders. Vegas ranks dead last in Pro Football Focus’s pass rush and pass coverage grades. Building a defense that can’t pressure the quarterback or cover receivers is like building a house that has no walls or floors. Then again, the Raiders built a $2 billion stadium in Las Vegas that looks like a Roomba, so what do they know about building anything?
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) @ Dallas Cowboys (2-6)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Steelers -14
So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” —Daniel 6:16
This game is the lion’s den, and Daniel is whomever the Cowboys toss in at quarterback. Dak Prescott’s ankle is broken, Andy Dalton went from concussion protocol to the COVID-19 list, and Dallas saw enough of Ben DiNucci to bench him after one game. That leaves the Cowboys with two options: Cooper Rush, whom Dallas signed one week ago, or Garrett Gilbert, whom Dallas signed four weeks ago. Neither has started an NFL game, and combined they have nine NFL pass attempts. Rush is likely going to start because he was Prescott’s backup quarterback for the last three seasons before being cut in May. Gilbert, meanwhile, is the star of everyone’s favorite YouTube video, “Garrett Gilbert Highlights—Best QB in AAF History.”
One of these young men will have the honor of being offered to Pittsburgh as a ritual sacrifice. The Steelers lead the NFL in sacks (and they’ve already had their bye week). With 30 sacks in seven games, they’re on pace for 68 this season, which would be the most an NFL team has had in more than 30 years.
The good news for Dallas is that the Steelers are not at full strength. Linebacker Devin Bush is out for the season with a torn ACL, and three of their defensive linemen (Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, and Chris Wormley) might miss this game. The bad news is that Dallas’s offensive line is in worse shape than Pittsburgh’s defensive line. Dallas is playing backups at both offensive tackle spots, including undrafted rookie free agent Terence Steele at right tackle, where he will need to block Steelers star defensive end T.J. Watt. Even if Rush or Gilbert were good at throwing, they wouldn’t have time to do it. The best the Cowboys can hope for is running with Ezekiel Elliott, but the Steelers also have one of the league’s best run defenses.
As depressing as things on offense seem for Dallas, the defense won’t fare much better. The Cowboys have allowed 33.3 points per game this season, the fourth-highest mark any team has had through eight games in the last 50 years. With such lopsided matchups on both sides of the ball, the Steelers have jumped to 14-point favorites, marking the first time that Pittsburgh has ever been favored over Dallas by more than four points.
Daniel, the guy who got thrown into that lion’s den, survived the night and was rescued (it is unclear what the point spread was on that). Dallas’s quarterback could make it through Sunday, too, but it’s going to require faith—and Cowboys fans don’t have much left.
Miami Dolphins (4-3) @ Arizona Cardinals (5-2)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cardinals -6
This is the first matchup between Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray since Alabama defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in 2018, a game that came three weeks after Murray beat out Tagovailoa for the Heisman Trophy.
Now, Tua is the starter in South Beach, while Murray is the starter in Arizona. Tua’s debut against the Rams was … fine; he should have an easier time against a Cardinals defense that, unlike the Rams, does not have Aaron Donald. The Cardinals also won’t have Chandler Jones, their best pass rusher, who is out for the season with a biceps injury. Expect Murray to look to get some revenge for his Sooners loss two years ago.
Monday Night Football
New England Patriots (2-5) @ New York Jets (0-8)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Patriots -7.5
An awful game with awful teams. The Jets are somehow even more abysmal than what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from them, as if they hit rock bottom and decided to drill deeper. The Patriots being bad is different. They have scaled the mountain so many times that they have become synonymous with the summit. Watching them struggle to leave base camp gives us collective schadenfreude. This game is torture for the fans who root for these teams, but for those tuning in without a stake in the game, it’s less about the football and more about watching a long, dark reign dwindle.