The NFL’s coronavirus response has plunged the league schedule into chaos. Last week was literally the longest in league history. It started with Texans-Lions on Thanksgiving and ended with Steelers-Ravens, whose Thanksgiving game was rescheduled thrice, on Wednesday afternoon. That game became a moving target because the Ravens had 10 consecutive days when various players and staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. Those players included MVP Lamar Jackson and half of Baltimore’s 22 starters.
The fact that Ravens-Steelers was postponed while the Broncos were forced to play the Saints without any quarterbacks confused many fans, players, and coaches. The league’s stance appears to be the following: The Ravens game was postponed because their outbreak was not contained, and therefore more people could have been infected. But Denver’s virus situation was contained since it affected just one personnel group. The league was not evaluating whether the Broncos had quarterbacks. It was evaluating whether playing the game could transmit the virus. With these two decisions, the NFL drew a clear line showing that it will reschedule games it deems unsafe, but could care less if a game is unfair.
To squeeze the Ravens game in on Wednesday, the NFL had to dramatically change the schedule for Week 13. The Ravens-Cowboys game originally scheduled for Thursday Night Football on December 3 has been moved to December 8. Meanwhile, the Steelers-Washington game scheduled for Sunday afternoon has been moved to 5 p.m. ET on Monday. That gives us a Monday Night Football doubleheader with the Buffalo Bills visiting the San Francisco 49ers. Except the Bills aren’t visiting San Francisco. The teams are playing at the Cardinals stadium in Arizona. The 49ers were booted from their stadium after county officials in Santa Clara, California, banned contact sports for three weeks. So the entire 49ers football operation picked up and moved to Glendale, Arizona, for (at least) the next three weeks.
This is the NFL in 2020. America’s most popular sport is inextricably intertwined with the virus that’s affecting the nation in record numbers, and the league’s handling of these cases is a bigger story than anything happening on the field. We will see whether last week was the low point of the season or merely a sign of what is to come.
On to Week 13.
Cleveland Browns (8-3) @ Tennessee Titans (8-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Titans -3.5
Derrick Henry just keeps trucking. The bulldozer-ballerina scored three touchdowns in the first half of last week’s game against the division-rival Colts, icing Indy and placing the Titans on top of the AFC South in the process. With the win, Tennessee moved to 17-7 since Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota in Week 7 last season. That includes three playoff games when Tennessee:
1. Ended Tom Brady’s time with the Patriots with a pick-six.
2. Derailed Baltimore’s all-time great offense and Lamar Jackson’s MVP form so thoroughly that the Ravens have still not bounced back.
3. Took a double-digit lead on the Chiefs in the AFC championship game (that they blew, but still).
Tennessee is one of the most resilient and confident teams in the NFL in a year when those qualities are essential to contending. This week they take on the Browns, who are hoping to build a new culture after 20 years of being a punching bag on the field and a punch line off it. The Browns are 8-3 this season, guaranteeing they won’t have a losing record for just the third time since they were reincarnated in 1999. More importantly, they’re currently on pace to make the playoffs for the first time since January 2003, when the no. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. Now Cleveland is trying not to choke down the stretch (and we will not even speak about mom’s spaghetti).
Defensive end Myles Garrett is back from the COVID-19 list, and he ranks third in the NFL in sacks behind T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald despite missing the past two games. Garrett and the Browns will have to focus on stopping Henry, but they could also have issues containing Tannehill and wide receiver A.J. Brown. Cleveland’s secondary has been dealing with injuries all season, and this week lost safety Ronnie Harrison for at least a month to a shoulder injury. Cornerback Denzel Ward—the no. 4 pick in 2018—will also miss his second game in a row with a calf strain. But if the Browns find a way to win, it would be their first 9-3 start since 1994, when their coach was Bill Belichick. Now the Browns might make the playoffs, and Belichick might not.
New Orleans Saints (9-2) @ Atlanta Falcons (4-7)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -3.5
The Saints swallowed the Broncos like a snake being fed frozen mice last week. But their defense digesting a quarterback-less team in a 31-3 win tells us nothing about their Super Bowl prospects. We also still have some pretty big questions about their offense. Quarterback Taysom Hill finished with just 78 passing yards in the win, but that was likely by design. New Orleans played ultra-conservatively against a Broncos team whose best chance of winning was via pick-sixes. But if last week taught us nothing about this Taysom Hill experiment, this week could teach us everything.
Any remaining doubts about whether Hill is legit or a gimmick could be settled in this game. The Saints are once again matching up with the Falcons just two weeks after their first meeting of the year. That game was Hill’s debut as the Saints starting quarterback, and we saw that he could be the quarterback of their future. But now that the Falcons have seen Hill play up close, Atlanta’s defense will be more prepared to stop Hill than any unit Hill has faced his entire life. And while Atlanta was a pushover earlier this season, it’s not anymore.
The Falcons are 4-2 since firing head coach Dan Quinn and replacing him with interim coach Raheem Morris, and if Todd Gurley had not brainfarted against Detroit in Week 7, they’d be 5-1. The only teams who are better than 5-1 since Week 6 are the Steelers, Chiefs, and … the Saints. The key to Atlanta’s improvement has been the defense. Under Quinn, the Falcons gave up the second-most points in the NFL in the first five weeks of the season. Under Morris, they’ve given up the fifth fewest. Morris is a strong game-planner and adjuster, and now he faces a team that handed Atlanta its only real loss in the past six weeks. If Hill has a weakness, Morris will find it.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10) @ Minnesota Vikings (5-6)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Vikings -9
The Vikings started 1-5 but have since gone 4-1. They’ll need to win at least four of their remaining five games to make the playoffs, and this one against Mike Glennon and the Jaguars might be the easiest left on the schedule. The Vikings are getting receiver Adam Thielen back from the COVID-19 list this week, but running back Dalvin Cook is dealing with an accumulation of injuries. “He’s just beat up,” Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said on KFAN radio this week. “He’s been hit pretty hard the last couple of weeks taking some poundings. It’s at that point of the season so we’ve got to get him freshened up this week and get him back to being himself.” Jacksonville’s bad defense could be just the trick.
Indianapolis Colts (7-4) @ Houston Texans (4-7)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Colts -3.5
Like the Vikings and Falcons, Houston has turned itself around after a bad start. The Texans fired head coach Bill O’Brien after an 0-4 start and have since gone 4-3 under interim head coach Romeo Crennel. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has the best passer rating in the NFL since O’Brien was fired. In fact, if Watson’s 120.3 passer rating since Week 5 holds the rest of the season, it would be the third-best passer rating among qualified QBs after Week 5 in NFL history (the only players ahead of him would be Peyton Manning in 2004 and Aaron Rodgers in 2011).
But Watson and the Texans might be in trouble. This week, Houston’s top receiver, Will Fuller V, and top cornerback, Bradley Roby, were suspended for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Both will miss the rest of the season. Fuller is a free agent at the end of the year, so his final game as a Texan may have been his 171-yard, two-touchdown performance on Thanksgiving Day.
The Texans will try to rebound from these suspensions against the Colts, who were just stomped by Derrick Henry and Tennessee. But Indianapolis’s fierce defense was defanged for that game because of the absence of its best player, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Buckner is still on the COVID-19 list and may miss this week’s game too. So could Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who sprained his MCL last week.
Detroit Lions (4-7) @ Chicago Bears (5-6)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bears -3
Both of these teams are in the middle of their most embarrassing stretches in years. The Lions just fired head coach Matt Patricia after getting blown out by the Texans on Thanksgiving Day. After the game, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson’s charity received dozens of donations from Lions fans to thank him for getting Patricia fired.
Chicago might be the next team to fire its coach. After a flimsy 5-1 start, the Bears have gone 0-5 and their offense has looked more inept than any in the NFL (including the Jets). If that isn’t rock bottom, then losing to Detroit this week would be.
Cincinnati Bengals (2-8-1) @ Miami Dolphins (7-4)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Dolphins -10.5
This game should be a matchup of Tua Tagovailoa vs. Joe Burrow. But Burrow is out for the season and Tua is questionable with a thumb injury, so instead it might be Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Brandon Allen. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) @ New York Jets (0-11)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Raiders -8
The Raiders are perhaps the league’s most confusing team. They nearly outdueled the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football, then got shellacked by the Falcons one week later. Luckily for Las Vegas, the Jets are the NFL’s version of a spa week.
Los Angeles Rams (7-4) @ Arizona Cardinals (6-5)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cardinals -1 (now Rams -2.5)
This game is crucial to the NFC West and the wild-card race at large, but it’s also a matchup of teams that have some strange similarities. Both of these franchises lost last week on late field goals, and both have an underperforming former no. 1 draft pick at quarterback. Cardinals QB Kyler Murray isn’t running with the same success he has earlier this season, and Rams QB Jared Goff is just disappointing.
The Rams will be a tough test for Murray, but we could also get one of the best receiver-cornerback matchups of the year in DeAndre Hopkins vs. Jalen Ramsey.
New York Giants (4-7) @ Seattle Seahawks (8-3)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seahawks -7.5 (Now Seahawks -10)
Quarterback Daniel Jones is questionable for this game after injuring his hamstring last week. If Jones can’t play, Colt McCoy would start. McCoy has a Hall of Fame name, but less than a Hall of Fame résumé. The Seahawks defense is also awaiting word on whether defensive end Carlos Dunlap will suit up for this game after suffering a foot injury. Dunlap has transformed Seattle’s defense from one of the league’s worst units to merely meh. But the real change is to Seattle’s offense, which is throwing less and running more as Pete Carroll seeks to establish balance.
The Giants are currently in first in the NFC East. Considering that this week the Cowboys play Baltimore, Washington plays Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia plays Green Bay, there is a real chance the Giants could lose this game, drop to 4-8 on the season, and still be in first place. Speaking of which ...
Philadelphia Eagles (3-7-1) @ Green Bay Packers (8-3)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Packers -6.5 (Now Packers -8.5)
Two years after the Eagles signed Carson Wentz to a deal guaranteeing him more than $100 million, many fans want him benched. Wentz has thrown 15 interceptions in 11 games (no other QB has more than 11) and been sacked 46 times (nobody else has been sacked more than 35 times). He is being sacked on one out of every 10 dropbacks, and is on pace for 67 sacks on the season, which would be the fourth most in NFL history and the most since David Carr was sacked 68 times on the expansion-team Texans (Carr was also sacked 76 times in 2002, his rookie season—poor guy).
Much of Wentz’s struggles are due to the ludicrous amount of injuries surrounding him, especially on the offensive line. But when Eagles coach Doug Pederson pulled Wentz off the field to give rookie second-rounder Jalen Hurts a snap, he signaled that Wentz’s status as the Eagles starter is no longer a lock.
Meanwhile, the team that set off a much larger uproar by drafting a quarterback in April is having a grand ole time. The Packers’ decision to trade up for quarterback Jordan Love has been mostly forgotten because Aaron Rodgers is having his best stretch in years. If the season ended today, Rodgers would likely come in second in MVP voting behind Patrick Mahomes. Wentz, meanwhile, might get some votes as the LVP.
New England Patriots (5-6) @ Los Angeles Chargers (3-8)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chargers -1.5 (Now a Pick ‘Em)
Bill Belichick has had an illustrious career, but this is the first time he has game-planned against a 14-year-old. L.A.’s rookie quarterback Justin Herbert may look babyfaced, but he and Keenan Allen have already established one of the best connections in the NFL. The Chargers have running back Austin Ekeler back from injured reserve, but the game could be decided by coaching. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has struggled managing the clock this season, which is a bad problem to have against one of the game’s best.
Sunday Night Football
Denver Broncos (4-7) @ Kansas City Chiefs (10-1)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chiefs -13
The Broncos are coming off the strangest game in modern NFL history. The team was forced to play Sunday’s game against the Saints without a quarterback after their top four passers either tested positive for the coronavirus or were considered high-risk contacts. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.
After that awful week and 31-3 loss, the Broncos now get a chance to lose by even more points. The Chiefs are a buzz saw. Tyreek Hill broke 200 receiving yards before the first quarter ended last week, and the Kansas City offense is head, shoulders, torso, and stomach above everyone else in the league. And even though some complained that the Broncos had to play without their quarterbacks last week, none of Denver’s quarterbacks are good. Drew Lock leads the NFL in bad throw percentage, per Pro Football Reference, and his passer rating ranks 31st, ahead of just Sam Darnold. The Broncos will have to get going fast on Sunday night to have any chance in this game.
Monday Night Football
Washington Football Team (4-7) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-0)
Time: 5 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Steelers -10
The Steelers are the ugliest 11-0 in NFL history. They have three convincing wins over the Browns, Bengals, and Jaguars, but they’ve had plenty more nail-biters in situations when they should have dominated. The latest example was their Wednesday win against the Ravens, who were missing half their starters due to COVID-19 and barely practiced for the game. The Steelers won the game 19-14, but they couldn’t catch, play defense in the red zone, or protect the ball. Ben Roethlisberger said “we didn’t play good enough” in his postgame interview, and coach Mike Tomlin said his team was “sucking.” This was after a win.
Washington is overwhelmed on paper here, but they have 11 days to prepare for this game, while the Steelers have four.
Buffalo Bills (8-3) @ Arizona 49ers (5-6)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bills -2.5
This game will be played in Arizona because Santa Clara County, California, banned all contact sports for three weeks. The 49ers have subsequently set up shop in Glendale, the home of their division rival Arizona Cardinals. And the Bills, who lost to the Cardinals in the ridiculous Hail Murray game with DeAndre Hopkins, now have to return to the scene of the crime.
The absurdity of this situation overshadows the fact that this is a coaching nerd fest. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is perhaps the best offensive schemer in the league, and Bills head coach Sean McDermott is one of the league’s best defensive minds. The back-and-forth of how these coaches adjust to one another will be one of the most interesting subplots of the week—but not as interesting as all the replays of Hopkins rising over three Bills defenders.
Wait! We are not done!! That was a premature green square.
Tuesday Night Football
Dallas Cowboys (3-8) @ Baltimore Ravens (6-5)
Time: 8:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Ravens -7
Baltimore’s odyssey in the past week has led to the team playing two of the league’s most popular franchises—Pittsburgh and Dallas—on a Wednesday afternoon and Tuesday night, respectively. (This game is displacing Fox’s usual Tuesday lineup of Cosmos: Possible Worlds and Filthy Rich.) It’s unclear which Ravens will even be eligible to suit up after half of their starters tested positive for the coronavirus. Lamar Jackson will likely play if he continues to test negative, but that is assuming he is in physical shape to do so. Robert Griffin III pulled his hamstring against Pittsburgh last week, and if Jackson can’t go, the Ravens will have to choose between Griffin and third-stringer Trace McSorley, the former Penn State quarterback who tossed his first career touchdown last week.
Amazingly, this is a crucial game for each team’s playoff chances. Baltimore’s odds to win the division are long gone, and their chances at a wild-card spot are slipping away fast. Meanwhile, Dallas needs a win to stay in the abominable NFC East race. These teams had so much promise entering this year and now they’re fighting for their seasons on a Tuesday. OK, now it is time for the green square.
The previous subheading for this piece incorrectly stated that Cleveland is guaranteed its first non-losing season since the franchise’s reincarnation. It will be the team’s third.