Arizona Cardinals (4-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (6-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Georgia Dome, Atlanta. TV: FOX, Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver.
SERIES HISTORY: 29th regular-season meeting. Cardinals lead series, 15-13. This is the seventh time the teams have met in the last 11 years, including the postseason. The Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-24 in a 2008 NFC wild-card contest. Home-field advantage has played a major role in determining the outcome, as home teams lead 20-8 in the regular season. The Cardinals are 9-2 at home and the Falcons are 11-6, including winning the last seven meetings in Atlanta. The Cardinals’ last win there was on Jan. 2, 1994.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons’ offense leads the NFL with an average of 6.73 yards per play. The Cardinals’ defense leads the NFL at 4.64 yards per play. The last four times the league’s top offense faced the top defense in yards per play, the top offense won the contest, including the most recent instance in Week 5, when the Falcons beat the Broncos.
The Falcons hope to get a pass rush rolling against the Cardinals, who couldn’t protect quarterback Carson Palmer long enough for their deep-passing game to work against the Vikings. Palmer was sacked four times and hit 15 times.
“Offensively, they have had some injuries there, so they have tried to heal up some guys along the offensive line,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “It’s going to be a tough challenge. Guys are going to have to come up with their A game.”
Vic Beasley is the Falcons’ sack leader with 9.5, second in the NFL behind three players tied at the top with 10.
The Falcons must stop the run after giving up 208 yards rushing against the Eagles. Arizona RB David Johnson accounted for 160 of the Cardinals’ 217 net yards against the Vikings.
Philadelphia’s Ryan Mathews was the first RB to rush for more than 100 yards against the Falcons this season. The Falcons are giving up 102.9 yards rushing per game, which ranks 16th in the league.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson. Peterson has been All-Pro three times and Jones once. Peterson called out Jones before their last meeting in 2014, saying he handled Jones when they faced each other in college (Peterson at LSU vs. Jones at Alabama) and their one previous NFL matchup. Jones countered that his teams beat Peterson three out of four times. Jones’ response: 10 catches (on 12 targets) for a then career-high 189 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons’ 29-18 victory. Unofficially, eight of those catches for 165 yards came with Peterson in coverage.
–Cardinals LBs Chandler Jones and Markus Golden vs. Falcons pass blocking. Jones and Golden have combined for 14 sacks and the Falcons have given up 24, tied for 21st in the league. Jones leads the Cardinals with eight sacks and Golden, a second-round pick in 2015, has six. They pace a defense that totals 31 sacks. Left tackle Jake Matthews will likely see Jones the most. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder will have Golden. Both OLs have been strong in pass protection but may get help from TE Levine Toilolo and RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who began Monday working on picking up linebackers with RB coach Bobby Turner.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Falcons pass rusher Vic Beasley. With 9.5 sacks, Beasley in second in the league behind three players with 10 each — Buffalo’s Lorenzo Alexander, Kansas City’s Dee Ford and Seattle’s Cliff Avril. Falcons DE Dwight Freeney is impressed, saying, “Vic is balling. He listened and he’s taken in a lot of the stuff that I’ve been telling him since training camp, and it has sunk in. Now, you can see it.”
FAST FACTS: Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald has a reception in 189 straight games, one shy of tying Marvin Harrison for the third-longest streak in NFL history. Jerry Rice (274 games) and Tony Gonzalez (211 games) own the two longer streaks. … Cardinals QB Carson Palmer has thrown for 765 yards, four TDs and an interception in two meetings at Atlanta. … Arizona RB David Johnson gained 160 yards (103 rushing) and scored twice in Week 11. He is the third player since 1970 to have 100-plus yards from scrimmage in each of the first 10 games. He also is tied for the NFL lead with 12 TDs (10 rushing). … Falcons QB Matt Ryan is the 23rd player in NFL history to pass for 36,000 yards. Ryan reached the mark in 136 games, faster than any of the previous 22 players. … Atlanta rookie S Keanu Neal aims for his eighth game in a row with at least eight tackles and leads NFL rookies with 66. He has forced a fumble in four of the past six games.
PREDICTION: Cardinals needed kickoff and interception returns of 100-yards plus to squeeze out a win over the Vikings last week, so there is no indication their offense is in sync or their defense is consistent. The Falcons were sailing before a loss to the Eagles, then had it gnaw at them during a bye.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-6-1) at Baltimore Ravens (5-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore. CBS, Tom McCarthy, Mike Mayock.
SERIES HISTORY: 41st regular-season meeting. The all-time series is tied 20-20. The Bengals have won the past five games in this AFC North matchup. The Ravens have not beaten Cincinnati since Nov. 10, 2013, when they managed a 20-17 overtime win at M&T Bank Stadium. Coach John Harbaugh is 7-9 in this series.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cincinnati trails in the AFC North by only a game and a half with three games remaining against the teams they are chasing, beginning Sunday at Baltimore.
The Ravens have lost the past five games in this series, which prevented them from staying atop the division. But this time the Bengals will be without two top playmakers — WR A.J. Green (hamstring) and RB Giovani Bernard (knee).
Bad timing for the Bengals considering they need all the firepower possible against a Ravens defense that yields the fewest yards in the NFL — a mere 230.4 per outing.
Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese must replace Green and Bernard, who accounted for more than 40 percent of the offense. Rookie WR Tyler Boyd could get moved around to find mismatches. Cincinnati must protect QB Andy Dalton (29 sacks). RB Jeremy Hill will must step up as rusher and pass blocker.
After an inconsistent season, the Ravens are at 5-5 and coach John Harbaugh treats the remaining schedule as a “six-game season,” beginning with Bengals, whom they have not beaten since 2013.
Baltimore sees signs of an improved running game with Terrance West and rookie Kenneth Dixon. They need to help open up deep-pass opportunities for QB Joe Flacco. WR Steve Smith is still dangerous at 37 years old.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley vs. Bengals DT Geno Atkins. Atkins is one of the premier inside pass rushers in the league and has been traditionally strong against Baltimore. Atkins has managed 4.5 sacks and will be a challenge for the rookie Stanley, who protects quarterback Joe Flacco’s blind side. Stanley, who missed four games earlier in the season with a foot injury, has been solid when he has been in the lineup. He will play a crucial role in this matchup.
–Ravens WR Steve Smith vs. Bengals CB Dre Kirkpatrick. The 37-year-old Smith has shown he can still be an effective playmaker and is a favorite target for quarterback Joe Flacco. Smith has caught 44 passes for 561 yards with three touchdowns. Kirkpatrick, who has three interceptions, injured his knee against Buffalo but is expected to be ready for the Ravens. That’s good news for the Bengals, who are already dealing with several significant injuries. Kirkpatrick, however, better be ready for a physical matchup, and perhaps some verbal sparring, with Smith.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Ravens OL Marshal Yanda. The five-time Pro Bowler missed three games with a left shoulder injury before returning against Dallas. With rookie left guard Alex Lewis out with a high ankle sprain, Yanda moved from his usual spot at right guard to Lewis’ spot on the left side, figuring it would be less stress on the injured shoulder. The move worked and helped reinforce the offensive line. Yanda will likely be back at left guard against Cincinnati.
FAST FACTS: Bengals QB Andy Dalton passed 383 yards and three TDs in the last meeting and ranks fifth in the AFC with 2,760 yards passing. After his rushing TD last week, Dalton has 17 since 2011, second among AFC QBs. … Bengals RB Jeremy Hill has three rushing scores in the last four games. Since 2014, he ranks second in the NFL with 26. … Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict made 12 tackles and picked off a pass in the last meeting. He had a sack last week and is aiming for his fourth consecutive game with at least 10 tackles. … Ravens QB Joe Flacco passed for 362 yards and two TDs in his last game vs. Cincinnati. … Ravens WR Steve Smith caught eight passes for 99 yards and a touchdown last week and has 339 yards receiving and three TDs in the last three games vs. the Bengals.
PREDICTION: This was going to be a rough road trip for the Bengals before they lost their top receiver and top runner. The Ravens’ defense should have an easier outing than last week against Dallas.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-8) at Buffalo Bills (5-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, New Era Field, Orchard Park, N.Y. TV: CBS, Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein.
SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Bills lead series, 7-6. The teams met last year in London in a memorable game in which the Bills fell behind 27-3 in the first half, came back to take a 31-27 lead and then lost on a late touchdown after a controversial pass interference penalty on Nickell Robey-Coleman. The last time the Bills hosted the Jaguars was in 2012, a 34-18 Buffalo victory.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Watkins are undeniably the Bills’ most talented and dynamic players on offense, and both could be on the field together for the first time since Week 2.
McCoy suffered a thumb injury in Buffalo’s 16-12 victory over Cincinnati and underwent surgery Sunday night. On Wednesday he was on the practice field with his thumb in a protective wrap. Coach Rex Ryan said he likes McCoy’s chances of playing against the Jaguars.
Watkins has not played since Week 2, and the Bills need him. He underwent offseason foot surgery and missed the offseason program and most of training camp. But he played in Buffalo’s first two games, catching six passes for 63 yards, before going on IR.
Jacksonville would like to run the ball against the Bills defense, which hasn’t had a lot of success stopping opponent’s ground attacks. But, since the Jaguars don’t even have a rusher among the league’s top 19 runners (compared to Buffalo’s three), that may not be the road to a win.
It leaves the Jaguars counting on QB Blake Bortles’ passing talents, which have been spotty, at best. Neither team has had a lot of success in stopping the run, so that might give the Jaguars hope. They will have a new starter in the offensive line in Chris Reed at left guard, his second appearance opening with the first string.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Bills RB LeSean McCoy vs. Jaguars LBs Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith. McCoy suffered a dislocated thumb in the first half of last Sunday’s game against Cincinnati and didn’t play in the second half. He had surgery Sunday night and was on the practice field Wednesday. He is seventh in the NFL with 716 yards rushing, and his 5.2 yards per carry are second-highest among backs with more than 60 attempts. But the Jaguars have been stout in stopping ground attacks this season and last week held Detroit to just 14 yards on the ground.
–Jaguars wide receivers vs. Bills cornerbacks. Jacksonville has a talented group in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee, but with QB Blake Bortles struggling so much this year, they haven’t produced. The Bills’ secondary was challenged last week by coach Rex Ryan to step it up, and they played very well in helping Buffalo win in Cincinnati. Now, CBs Stephon Gilmore, Ronald Darby and Kevon Seymour have to build on that performance. If they can shut down Bortles, it will be a long day for the Jaguars.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bills K Dan Carpenter. On a day when a stunning 12 extra points were missed across the NFL, Carpenter stood head and shoulders above everyone. On a chilly, breezy afternoon in Cincinnati, Carpenter made all four of his kicks — one extra point and three field goals, one a 54-yarder in the third quarter that gave the Bills the lead for good in their 16-12 victory. For his efforts, he was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for the sixth time. Coach Rex Ryan, who has some contentious history with Carpenter, changed his tune regarding his veteran kicker Monday, saying. “By the way, I think the star of the game was Carpenter; because, after watching 12 missed extra points in the league, just set a record, it was great we made all our kicks — including the 54-yarder, which really, in my opinion, was the biggest play of the game.”
FAST FACTS: Jags QB Blake Bortles passed for two TDs in the last meeting. In the past four games, he has 1,056 yards passing and nine TDs. … Jaguars LB Paul Posluszny spent four years with Bills (2007-10) and made two INTs in three meetings. … Jaguars LB Telvin Smith scored off an interception and registered three passes defensed in the last meeting. Since 2014, he is one of three players with 300 tackles (306), three forced fumbles and two interceptions. … Bills QB Tyrod Taylor leads NFL QBs with 401 yards rushing. Since 2015, he is the only QB with 4,500 yards passing (4,970) and 950 yards rushing (969). … Bills RB LeSean McCoy seeks a third consecutive game vs. the Jags with 100 yards from scrimmage. Since 2010, he leads the NFL with 7,766 yards rushing.
PREDICTION: This game may not win any awards for style, but the athleticism of the Bills’ skill players should win the day.
Tennessee Titans (5-6) at Chicago Bears (2-8)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Soldier Field, Chicago. TV: CBS, Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Bears lead the series, 6-5. The Bears won the last game in Tennessee, 51-20. All but one of the Titans’ wins in the series came when they were still the Houston Oilers.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Matt Barkley is the likely starting QB after Jay Cutler suffered a right shoulder injury last week. Cutler isn’t practicing, but coach John Fox at least likes the fact it might not be the end of the line for the veteran starter.
“You know, in my experience with Jay, he’s a tough son of a gun,” Fox said. “So he doesn’t go typical of the lengths people put into it as far as weeks and whatnot. So, you know, right now he is day to day.”
Earlier media reports called it a season-ending labrum injury. While Fox was vague on the injury’s severity and whether it requires surgery, he does know it’s possible Cutler could play again this year.
“It’s not season-ending, contrary to the reports you heard,” Fox said.
Barkley signed with the Bears’ practice squad Sept. 4, then became active when Cutler suffered a thumb sprain against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2.
The Titans want to get back to running the football, something they may need even more at windy Soldier Field, where the passing game becomes tricky at times. That means a healthy dose of RBs DeMarco Murray and perhaps getting Derrick Henry going again after he disappeared in the past couple of his weeks.
Titans QB Marcus Mariota needs just two more TD passes to move into fourth place on the team’s season list. He has 23 in 11 games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Titans C Ben Jones vs. Bears NT Eddie Goldman. Goldman missed last week’s game with an ankle injury and is uncertain he will be ready. If not, C.J. Wilson will replace him. Either way, the Titans have an edge. Jones, the former Texans center who signed in free agency, has been a key reason for the Tennessee rushing offense ranking third. Goldman’s ability to either get into a gap or play two-gap style makes him versatile and a run stuffer, but the injury status favors the Titans.
–Bears WR Eddie Royal vs. Titans CB Brice McCain. Royal was targeted only three times in the last two games and has three catches. McCain has two interceptions and six pass breakups. Royal has been either ignored or unable to get open since being bothered by a toe injury. He will be needed this week because the areas over the middle are where Matt Barkley will need to look when the Titans come with the blitz — and they can be expected to do that often. The tight end is supposed to be a quarterback’s best friend; and, with Zach Miller now lost for the year, expect the slot receiver to provide that security blanket. McCain left last week’s game with a minor injury but returned, so he’s expected to play.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Titans OL Dennis Kelly. For two weeks in a row, the Titans have turned to Kelly to finish a game — Taylor Lewan was ejected against Green Bay and injured against the Colts. Lewan is day-to-day with a sprained left knee, so Kelly could start Sunday if Lewan is unable to go. The Titans are still holding out hope that Lewan will play. If he does, the Titans have a bye week next week which would give him two weeks of rest.
FAST FACTS: Titans QB Marcus Mariota threw two touchdown passes in a loss last week — his seventh straight game with multiple touchdown passes. It’s the longest active streak in the NFL and also a franchise record — Warren Moon threw multiple TD passes in six straight games in 1987. … Bears RB Jordan Howard is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, second in the NFL among players with at least 100 attempts; Miami’s Jay Ajayi is at 5.6. Howard is on pace to become the first Bears rookie since Gale Sayers in 1965 to average over 5.0 yards per carry on at least 100 attempts.
PREDICTION: Barkley may find himself on a team with less talent than some of his USC squads, but here’s wishing him luck. Mariota is putting together a season that will feed the debate over who should have been drafted No. 1 overall in 2015.
New York Giants (7-3) at Cleveland Browns (0-11)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland. TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Matt Millen, Peter Schrager.
SERIES HISTORY: 49th regular-season meeting. Browns lead series, 26-20-2. The Giants have won five out of the last six regular-season meetings, the most recent a 41-27 triumph in 2012. The Giants and Browns have met twice in the postseason, in 1950 and 1958. That series is tied, 1-1.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Here is a game the Giants cannot really win. A victory is already assumed against the winless Browns, so New Yorkers are prepared to yawn if the Giants are victorious. If the Browns manage to snap the Giants’ five-game win streak, those New York tabloid headline-writers will have a field day.
Still, consider that the Giants and QB Eli Manning are facing a Browns defense that last week held Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season-low 167 passing yards. The popular belief is that if the Giants can keep Manning upright against a weak Browns pass rush, the passing game has a chance to gather some statistics.
Meanwhile, Josh McCown is getting his third start at QB for the Browns, but looks jittery after breaking his collarbone in Game 2 and knowing that his line has allowed 38 sacks.
Predictably, players are grumbling and coach Hue Jackson, known as a player’s guy, is struggling to hold the team together. It wasn’t surprising that WR Terrelle Pryor, a former QB, called out teammates, especially the offensive line, saying, “I’m tired of our quarterbacks getting hit.” It was surprising that he was joined by usually silent Pro Bowl OT Joe Thomas, who called out management for letting center Alex Mack (Falcons) and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (Chiefs) leave through free agency. They were replaced by center Cameron Erving and right tackle Austin Pasztor. Jackson had a talk with Pryor and Thomas and reported, “They just want to win. … It’s all coming from a good place.”
If the frustrated Browns do manage to win Sunday, New York won’t be a good place.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Browns CB Joe Haden. Haden leads the Browns with three interceptions. Beckham was limited to five receptions (out of seven pass targets) for 46 yards and zero touchdowns, as the coverage last week seemed to discourage passes his way. While the Browns are likely to provide bracket coverage, he remains perhaps the only receiver capable of beating double coverage if Manning has time to find him.
–Browns WR Terrelle Pryor vs. Giants CB Janoris Jenkins. The Browns’ leader in catches (56), yards (724) and receiving touchdowns (four), Pryor has made an impressive conversion from QB in his first full season at WR. Jenkins has quietly led the Giants’ defense with his stellar play against top receivers. While Jenkins might allow receptions, he doesn’t give up many yards after the catch and has been stingy allowing touchdowns. Pryor leads a pedestrian Browns receiving corps and might be the only receiver worthy of double-coverage consideration.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Browns QB Josh McCown. With six interceptions and two lost fumbles and fresh off three turnovers against Pittsburgh, McCown will be making his third start of the season. He started Game 2 and suffered a broken collarbone. McCown started Game 8 against the Jets and was back on the sideline a week later after throwing two TDs and two INTs. He relieved in the last two games but hasn’t found a rhythm. A good performance against the Giants might earn McCown a start against the Bengals on Dec. 11 after a bye on Dec. 4. That said, QB Robert Griffin III is designated to return from injured reserve and practiced Wednesday, but he has not been cleared for contact.
FAST FACTS: Giants QB Eli Manning has passed for 2,716 yards , 20 TDs and seven interceptions in the past nine games vs. AFC teams. … Giants RB Rashad Jennings collected 129 yards from scrimmage and a TD in Week 11. … Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. has caught 35 passes for 738 yards and seven TDs in the last five games vs. AFC teams. His 31 receiving touchdowns since 2014 are the most in NFL. … Browns TE Gary Barnidge caught a TD pass last week and has 1,500 yards receiving since 2015 — fourth among NFL tight ends. … Browns WR Terrelle Pryor seeks a third game in a row vs. the NFC with a TD catch. He collected 97 yards receiving last week and leads Cleveland with 56 catches, 724 yards and four TD catches.
PREDICTION: It’s always tempting to say this is the week the Browns take out their frustrations on the other team and finally win. But we tried that twice, so the plan is to stick to the standard script this week.
San Diego Chargers (4-6) at Houston Texans (6-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NRG Stadium, Houston. TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon.
SERIES HISTORY: Fifth meeting. The Chargers lead the series, 4-1.
The first game the Chargers played under coach Mike McCoy was against the visiting Texans in 2013. In a preview of what has derailed the Chargers this year, San Diego squandered a big lead. The Chargers led 28-7 in the third quarter, only to fall 31-28. That snapped a four-game winning streak the Chargers had over the Texans, which included two games at Houston. The Chargers’ previous excursion to the Lone Star State resulted in a 29-23 triumph in 2010.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Battling a hangover from their trip to Mexico City, the Houston Texans must focus on a visit by the Chargers and stay in the thick of the AFC South race.
On the cusp of a surprising victory over the AFC West-leading Oakland Raiders, the Texans coughed up a seven-point lead with a fourth-quarter collapse and fell 27-20 in Mexico City. Instead of establishing a two-game lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South, with a head-to-head victory in hand, the Texans dropped to 4-3 in the AFC and set the stage for a dogfight for the division title down the stretch.
Since their spirited fourth-quarter rally to beat the Colts on Oct. 16, the Texans have been outscored 41-9 in the fourth quarter of their last four games. Given the ongoing struggles of the offense, it’s unjust to saddle the Texans’ defense with the blame for their late-game issues, but what is true is that Houston has wavered when those tense moments have arrived.
The Texans’ offense will try to build on QB Brock Osweiler’s solid performance in the loss to the Raiders, but a running game is needed to take pressure off him.
Defensively, the Texans remain an upper-echelon team, ranking 12th in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. But the manner in which they surrendered the lead to Oakland continued a recent trend that warrants attention and a reversal.
The Chargers often remain in many games due to the presence of QB Philip Rivers, although his interceptions ruined their chances against the Dolphins just before the team’s bye. The defense is getting a boost from DE Joey Bosa, a candidate for Rookie Defensive Player of the Year.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Texans QB Brock Osweiler vs. Chargers DE Joey Bosa. Osweiler has been doing a solid job of escaping pressure and avoiding sacks. He has been sacked only 18 times and hit 60. Bosa has four sacks but gets a lot of pressure on the quarterback and is a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year despite missing early games with contract dispute.
–Chargers QB Philip Rivers vs. Texans CB Johnathan Joseph. Rivers is a strong-armed gunslinger who has the confidence and accuracy to put the football wherever he wants to. A two-time Pro Bowl player, Joseph is a savvy veteran.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chargers ILB Denzel Perryman. Perryman is no stranger to the spotlight, but it hits him with a different shade on Sunday. He is among the team’s best run stuffers, but it is not known whether his hamstring will hold up. It has cost him the last two games, and the loss of nose tackle Brandon Mebane will make Perryman’s job even more difficult.
FAST FACTS: Chargers QB Philip Rivers is on pace to throw for 4,000 yards for the fourth straight season and eighth overall, which would tie him for third-most all-time. In Week 10, he threw for 300 yards for the 50th time in his career, ranking eighth all-time and just one behind Dan Fouts’ franchise record of 51. … Texans RB Lamar Miller is having a career year, averaging 82.4 yards per game on the ground, good for sixth in the NFL and well above his career-high of 68.7 set in 2014 with the Dolphins. Through 10 games, he has carried the ball 192 times for 824 yards, nearly identical to his 16-game totals of 194 carries for 872 yards last season.
PREDICTION: Although the Chargers are usually not an easy opponent, the Texans certainly have enough incentive to get back in the win column after losing a game they easily could have won against the highly rated Raiders.
San Francisco 49ers (1-9) at Miami Dolphins (6-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami. TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Chris Spielman, Holly Sonders.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Dolphins lead series, 6-5. The 49ers will be looking for their first win at Miami in 21 years (Nov. 20, 1995), one that if secured would even the series. The 49ers won the most recent matchup of the squads, 27-13 at home on Dec. 9, 2012. The most famous head-to-head in the series occurred in Super Bowl XIX in Palo Alto, Calif., with the 49ers prevailing 38-16.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Coach Chip Kelly reiterated this week that his club is a run-first team, so you can bet Carlos Hyde will get first crack at denting a Miami defense that has allowed the fifth-most rushing yards in the league this season. The Los Angeles Rams seemed to have that same game plan last week, and it resulted in an early 24-yard touchdown run by Todd Gurley. But the Dolphins toughened up after that, limiting Gurley to 76 yards and holding the Rams without another touchdown.
Miami wants to impose its physical mentality on San Francisco offensively by running the ball with Jay Ajayi and controlling the clock.
Even with three offensive starters missing last week against the Los Angeles Rams the Dolphins found a way to run the ball effectively (98 yards, 5.2 yards per carry).
Defensively, Miami wants to stop the San Francisco running game and use its defensive front, led by end Cam Wake and tackle Ndamukong Suh, to harass 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
49ers QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Dolphins DE Cameron Wake. If the Dolphins are able to shut down Carlos Hyde like they did Todd Gurley last week, it’ll be up to Kaepernick to do some damage with outside runs. Marcus Mariota (60 rushing yards and a touchdown) and Tyrod Taylor (a rushing score) were able to have success running on Miami this season.
Dolphins WR DeVante Parker vs. 49ers CB Rashard Robinson. The 49ers will be without their top cover corner, Jimmie Ward, this week, so you know where the bull’s-eye will be on their defense: rookie replacement Robinson. His task is no easy one. He’ll have to deal with Parker, who is coming off two big games and appears to be fulfilling his predraft promise.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: SS Jaquiski Tartt. The second-year safety will move farther from the line of scrimmage than he’s accustomed this week as he’ll be asked to replace injured free safety Eric Reid. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Miami Dolphins can get the run stopper to bite on play fakes and maybe take advantage of his lack of experience in deep coverage.
FAST FACTS: In his past four games vs. the AFC, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has thrown seven TD passes and no interceptions. He has lost eight straight road starts. Steve DeBerg lost a team-record 14 straight in 1978-79. … Miami QB Ryan Tannehill threw two TD passes in the final five minutes of 14-10 win at Los Angeles last week. In the past five games, he has six passing TDs and one interception. … Miami RB Jay Ajayi has rushed for 685 yards and four TDs in the past five games. He leads NFL running backs with 5.6 yards per carry and ranks second with 28 carries of 10 yards or more. … After starting 1-4, the Dolphins have won an AFC-best five straight games. Miami has won four straight games via fourth-quarter comeback, the second-longest streak in the Super Bowl era.
PREDICTION: These teams are streaking in opposite directions, and it’s tough to see the 49ers rising up against the suddenly gritty Dolphins.
Los Angeles Rams (4-6) at New Orleans Saints (4-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: FOX, Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale.
SERIES HISTORY: 72nd regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 40-31. After facing each other twice a year as members of the NFC West from 1970 to 2001, the Saints and Rams have played just seven times since realignment — the Rams winning four. The Rams took the last two, both in St. Louis. One of the biggest wins for the Saints was a 31-24 road victory in 2000 over the reigning Super Bowl champions when quarterback Aaron Brooks made his first NFL start and directed his team over the Rams en route to the NFC West title. A little more than a month later, on Dec. 30, 2000, the Saints recorded the franchise’s first playoff win by defeating the Rams 31-28 in an NFC wild-card game at the Superdome.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The NFL’s top offense will collide with the league’s sixth-ranked defense when the Saints go against the Rams.
The Saints will match up with former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with an eye on running the ball. The Rams rank 15th in yards allowed at 102.6 per game.
While Mark Ingram, Travaris Cadet and Daniel Lasco have been banged up, the Saints have run the ball more efficiently in their last five games — 134 yards an outing — and have risen to 17th at 105.2 yards per game. If the Saints can be productive there again, Drew Brees and the NFL’s top-ranked passing attack could exploit a pass defense that ranks sixth at 215.7 yards per game.
The Saints will try to frustrate rookie QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley and a Rams offense that has struggled mightily. The Rams rank 31st in offense with 299.9 yards per game and are 29th with 84.5 rushing yards. Gurley, who lit up the league as a rookie last season, is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry and has scored just four touchdowns; the Rams net just 3.3 yards per attempt, with five rushing TDs.
Goff, the top draft pick, had a rough go in his first start last Sunday, completing 17 of 31 pass attempts for 134 yards. He was sacked just once and had no interceptions, but the Saints undoubtedly will try to ramp up the pressure and make him uncomfortable — especially if they can keep Gurley from going off.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Saints offensive line vs. Rams defensive line. The Saints have done a good job opening holes for the running game, netting 134 yards in the past five games after early-season struggles. They also have given, as usual, QB Drew Brees lots of time to throw the ball, allowing a mere 16 sacks in 436 drop-backs. But they will be supremely tested and will have to hold up against two of the NFL’s best defensive linemen in hyperactive tackle Aaron Donald and blur-quick end Robert Quinn.
–Rams QB Jared Goff vs. Saints front seven. The Saints recorded eight sacks in their last two games after turning up the heat on Denver’s Trevor Siemian and Carolina’s Cam Newton. Expect to see more of that against a rookie QB in his second start and an offensive line that already has allowed 24 sacks in 10 games. To make it tougher on Goff, the Saints can bring heat from inside as well with defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Sheldon Rankins after relying for years only on a perimeter pass rush.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Saints OL Andrus Peat. The Saints took Peat, the son of former NFL player Todd Peat, with the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft, thinking someday he would plug into the starting lineup at right tackle. But with 11-year veteran Zach Strief anchored there, the 6-foot-7, 316-pound Peat has been versatile in starting at three positions in his first 21 games. He has started at left tackle, left guard and right tackle and played much better in 2016 after struggling a bit as a rookie. He played well in four starts at left tackle in place of an injured Terron Armstead and in five starts at left guard, where Peat was supposed to play this season. The Saints lead the NFL in passing yards and Drew Brees was been sacked only 16 times.
FAST FACTS: Rams RB Todd Gurley had his longest run of the season in last week’s loss to Miami, a 24-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He finished with 76 yards and is still looking for his first 100-yard outing after registering five as a rookie in 2015. … Saints QB Drew Brees has completed more than 70 percent in five straight games, including a season-best 79.5 percent (35 of 44) last week at Carolina. That is the longest streak of his career. For the season, his 71 completion percentage leads the NFL.
PREDICTION: It would be an historic changing of the guard to see a major shootout between Saints QB Brees and Rams rookie Goff. But the battle will be more Brees vs. the Rams’ talented defense and Goff will probably try not to screw it up rather than unload a flurry of passes.
Seattle Seahawks (7-2-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin.
SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Seahawks lead series, 8-4. The Seahawks have lost three of the last four meetings. Seattle fell behind 21-0 in 2013 to an 0-7 Tampa Bay team before rallying for a 27-24 overtime victory in Seattle. Seattle won the first four meetings after both teams entered the league as expansion franchises in 1976.
KEYS TO THE GAME: With multiple injuries at running back, Seattle will look to take advantage of a porous Buccaneers pass defense. The Seahawks have gained over 400 yards in each of their last two games.
Defensively, Seattle will need to be aware of Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans in the passing game and attempt to limit Doug Martin’s effectiveness on the ground.
The Bucs will continue to control the tempo and slow down the Seahawks’ pass rush with the running game. RB Doug Martin still hasn’t worked himself back into form, but he had a season-high 24 carries last week and was a real asset in pass protection. His presence keeps the defense honest.
Running successfully on first down has improved the pass protection for Winston, who has cut down on his turnovers. He has only two interceptions in his last six games.
Defensively, the Bucs will be short-handed in the secondary. CB Brent Grimes has a quad strain and may not play. The Bucs lost nickel corner Jude Adjei-Barimah to a four-game suspension for PED use. Against Kansas City, the Bucs allowed two passes of more than 40 yards. But Russell Wilson will take more shots downfield than Alex Smith, so there will be pressure on the safeties to keep the ball from going over their head.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman. Evans is Tampa Bay’s most explosive offensive weapon and one of the top receiving targets in the league. With DeShawn Shead likely out, Seattle could be more inclined to have Sherman follow Evans around the field and line up against him more regularly.
–Seahawks RB Thomas Rawls vs. Buccaneers LB Lavonte David. Rawls is back as Seattle’s starter after missing most of the season due to injury. David will be one of Tampa Bay’s key cogs in trying to keep Rawls contained.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: FS Steven Terrell. Terrell is in line to get his first start with the Seahawks after Earl Thomas pulled his left hamstring on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Terrell has appeared in 26 games over the last three seasons for Seattle as a reserve safety and special teams contributor. Free safety is a vital cog in Seattle’s single-high safety defense and Terrell will have big shoes to fill.
FAST FACTS: Last week, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson improved his career record to 15-3 in November. In his last five November starts, Wilson has completed 70.6 percent with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. … Tampa Bay WR Mike Evans caught six passes for 105 yards while being thrown to 13 times last week. Evans has accounted for 31.4 percent of Tampa Bay’s targets. No other receiver in the league is over 29 percent. … The Bucs are the fifth NFC team since the 1970 merger to have no more than one home win (1-4) and four or more road victories (4-1) through the first 10 games.
PREDICTION: Both teams are pretty banged up in their secondaries, which means this shapes up as a bit of an aerial show. The Bucs have not fared well in home shootouts, losing 30-24 to Oakland and 43-28 to Atlanta in the past month.
New England Patriots (8-2) at New York Jets (3-7)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl.
SERIES HISTORY: 112th regular-season meeting. The Patriots lead the series, 57-53-1. New England and New York have a storied rivalry that dates to the first season of the AFL in 1960. From players like Curtis Martin and Darrelle Revis bouncing between the teams to Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick’s jumping between sidelines, the soap opera has often surpassed the on-field drama. New England has had the upper hand in recent years, winning eight of the last 10. The most recent battle was New York’s 26-20 overtime win last December.
KEYS TO THE GAME: New York’s strength on defense is a front that’s one of the best against the run in the league. But teams have certainly been able to throw on the Jets, who have not had a consistent pass rush and are fading in the back end as Darrelle Revis ages. Tom Brady should be able to attack New York with quick passes and his usual efficient throws in the middle of the field. Even with Rob Gronkowski dealing with a chest injury, Brady has tight end Martellus Bennett, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and backs James White and Dion Lewis with which to spread out New York.
LeGarrette Blount will almost certainly be a secondary plan off attack against the big Jets front. Assuming the New England line can get adequate pass protection and deal with the wide variety of blitzes that are sure to come from Todd Bowles’ defense, Brady and the passing game will challenge the Jets in the back end.
The Jets have rushed for 139 yards or more and averaged better than four yards a carry in each of the last four games. The Patriots have allowed more than four yards a carry on the ground in three of the last four, and the unit will likely be playing without suspended DT Alan Branch, which won’t help the front. DC Matt Patricia’s group must find a way to set the edge and tackle better to keep Matt Forte and Bilal Powell from balancing out an offensive attack that has scored 23 or more points in three straight.
When the ball is in the air or on the ground, New England has been able to take advantage of late. The Patriots have focused on improved hustle and getting more bodies around the football. This may be another week, building off last week in San Francisco, where Patricia dials up a few more blitzes to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into mistakes.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Patriots FS Devin McCourty. New England has gone three straight games without a turnover for the first time in more than a decade. New York has the third-most giveaways in the NFL, thanks in part to Fitzpatrick’s 13 interceptions. McCourty is the Pro Bowl leader in the back end and has made it clear he and other top New England defenders must play better. A unit that’s due for some big plays should get some chances against a quarterback who can make big plays for both teams.
–Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Jets DE Leonard Williams. Brady continues to amaze with his play, including his much-improved mobility and ability to make plays on the run. In many ways that has been necessary for the Patriots’ offensive success in recent weeks. Williams has been New York’s most productive pass rusher in his second season. Brady and his offensive line must overcome a talented Jets front that probably will need to control the game to pull off the upset. Williams is a big part of that, one of the few Jets able to get to the quarterback with any consistency.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: DE Jabaal Sheard. The veteran started the first eight games and was expected to replace Chandler Jones after the Pro Bowl pass rusher was traded to Arizona this offseason. But Sheard has just 3.5 sacks and seemingly has fallen into Bill Belichick’s doghouse in recent weeks. He played just 16 snaps two weeks ago in a loss to Seattle. Last Sunday, he was a healthy scratch who wasn’t even brought to San Francisco. Finding a way to get Sheard going in the right direction and making plays for a New England defense greatly lacking playmaking ability would be a good step toward helping turn around the struggling unit.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots are 5-0 on the road this season, tied for the team’s third-longest road win streak to begin a season. … The Jets’ 9-6 loss to the Rams in Week 10 was New York’s third game of the season scoring six or fewer points, the most in the NFL. The last time they did that four times was in 2005. … Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount has 802 rushing yards — his most since rushing for 1,007 with Tampa Bay in his rookie season (2010). … Patriots QB Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes without being picked off last week in San Francisco; he has 13 TD passes and no interceptions on the road this season.
PREDICTION: The Patriots have felt right at home on the road, and they have a decided advantage at quarterback.
Carolina Panthers (4-6) at Oakland Raiders (8-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Oakland Coliseum. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson.
SERIES HISTORY: Sixth meeting, Panthers lead all-time series, 3-2. Carolina won the last meeting, in Week 16 of the 2012 season, 17-6. In the last game in Oakland, Carolina won 17-9 in 2008 despite quarterback Jake Delhomme going 7-for-27 with four interceptions. The last Raiders win was 27-24 in 2004 in Carolina with Kerry Collins at quarterback.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Although the Raiders will seek to restore some balance against Carolina after being unable to run against Houston, the Panthers are giving up 271.7 yards passing per game, 27th in the NFL, as opposed to 3.5 yards per carry on the ground. So look for the Raiders to open it up early with Derek Carr against a suspect secondary, then go to the run later if the game is under control.
Quarterback Cam Newton is the Panthers’ primary weapon, passing and running. Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley Jr. are candidates to spy on Newton, who will be the focal point of everything coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. devise for a game plan.
After slowing down the Saints to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, the Panthers have to figure out how to do the same against the high-flying Raiders. They will have to do it without their best defensive player, LB Luke Kuechly (concussion), and leading sack-getter, DE Mario Addison (foot).
MVP candidate Derek Carr has Oakland ranked fourth in passing yards and fifth in total offense and scoring, but the Texans had him on the ropes Monday night. The Panthers should follow a similar plan: Shut down the Raiders’ running game and limit Carr’s big plays. That fell apart for the Texans when they allowed two long touchdown pass plays in the fourth quarter, but if Carolina can hold receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in check, they must make sure Oakland’s running backs don’t run free as pass catchers.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. Raiders SS Karl Joseph. The Raiders were victimized early and often by Houston tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who had six receptions for 84 yards. Defending tight ends has been an off-and-on proposition for the Raiders the last two seasons, and Olsen provides perhaps the toughest test of the season; he has a league-high 54 receptions for 745 yards and three touchdowns. Joseph has had a solid first year, although his tackling has been better than his man-to-man defense. Malcolm Smith could figure in some routes here, although in those instances Cam Newton will almost certainly go to Olsen.
–Raiders RG Gabe Jackson vs. Panthers DT Star Lotulelei. Jackson has had a generally solid season in switching from left guard to right guard to make room for Kelechi Osemele. He is at his best when matched against a player of strength as opposed to a smaller, quicker lineman. Lotulelei has four sacks and nine quarterback pressures. If he can pressure Carr up the middle one-on-one, it would go a long way toward improving what Carolina’s leaky pass defense.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Raiders LB Malcolm Smith. He had 10 tackles and an interception in a 27-20 win over Houston, playing 74 out of a possible 76 snaps. The Raiders’ leading tackler last season, Smith is second in tackles in 2016 despite missing one game because of an injury. His six passes defensed are the most on the Raiders among front-seven players.
FAST FACTS: The Panthers are just 1-3 on the road this season, allowing 30 points per game. … Oakland has won four straight, averaging 30 points per game. … Carolina QB Cam Newton completed just 42.4 percent of his throws in Week 11 — the third-lowest completion percentage of his career. … Oakland QB Derek Carr’s 20 touchdown passes are tied for second most of any AFC quarterback behind Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota (23). On Monday in Mexico City, Carr went over 10,000 yards for his career. … Oakland has 10 scrimmage touchdowns of at least 20 yards — tied with Pittsburgh for second most in the NFL (Atlanta has 12). Carolina has just three such touchdowns (tied for third fewest in the league).
PREDICTION: An ugly win in Los Angeles aside, the Panthers have struggled mightily on the road, and there’s little chance they will be able to keep up with the high-scoring Raiders.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-3) at Denver Broncos (7-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver. TV: NBC, Kevin Kugler, James Lofton.
SERIES HISTORY: 112th regular-season meeting. Chiefs lead series, 57-53. Broncos won seven of the last eight. Most historic meeting between these two teams was on Jan. 4, 1998, when Darrien Gordon broke up an Elvis Grbac pass in the end zone to preserve a 14-10 win in the divisional playoffs.
KEYS TO THE GAME: This will be the first of two meetings between the Chiefs and Broncos in 2016. They will play again in Week 16. These AFC West rivals, who both trail the 8-2 Oakland Raiders, split two games last season, each beating the other on the road (the Broncos won 31-24 in Kansas City and the Chiefs won 29-13 in Denver).
The Broncos and Chiefs have the toughest remaining strength of schedules in the AFC this season (tied for second toughest overall). Both teams’ remaining opponents have a combined .607 win percentage.
It is not a coincidence that the Chiefs’ five-game winning streak ended in the same week that they had a negative turnover margin for the first time since a 43-14 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 4. Kansas City racked up a plus-11 turnover margin during that winning streak and has a plus-17 margin in its seven wins this year. In three losses, the margin is minus-4.
Although the Broncos would like to open up the offense, if that means an increased giveaway risk, it’s a chance they cannot take — unless the defense can have more games like its four-takeaway performance at the expense of the Saints in Week 10.
It’s hard to say a team holding a 7-3 record has been unimpressive, but that’s the case with the Chiefs. There were games in which their defense shined by forcing turnovers and not allowing touchdowns. But the defense and offense are coming off a horrid performance in a two-point home loss to Tampa Bay. A similar performance would lead to a very nasty beating from the Broncos, who are familiar with beating up the Chiefs. Over the last 15 seasons, Denver has a 20-12 record against the division rival, with a 12-4 record in games played under mile high conditions. If the Kansas City defense can’t keep the Broncos out of the end zone, the offense will need to score a lot more than the 1.8 touchdowns it averages this season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Chiefs RBs Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West and Knile Davis vs. Broncos NT Sylvester Williams and ILBs Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis. If the Kansas City offense can’t consistently run the football, its chances of winning drop considerably. The Chiefs’ package works only when there is balance, and they have struggled with that in recent weeks. Just over a month ago, they ranked in the top half of the league in rushing yards. Now, they are No. 21, able to push out just 98 per game. Denver’s defense is No. 4 overall, but a lowly No. 29 against the run, allowing 4.4 yards per carry and 123.7 yards per game. In the Broncos’ most recent AFC West games, San Diego’s Melvin Gordon ran for 111 yards on 23 carries and Oakland’s Latavius Murray tallied 114 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. The Chiefs need similar production.
–Chiefs OLB Justin Houston vs. Broncos OTs Donald Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo. In his first four NFL seasons, Stephenson was on the field for the Chiefs whenever he wasn’t under NFL suspension, injured or in the coaching doghouse. He signed as a UFA with Denver in March and has seven starts. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Stephenson or Sambrailo will be at right tackle, competing for the job each week. Stephenson had more than a few post-practice headaches from going against Houston. In one-on-one drills in training camp, Stephenson seldom won a play against Houston. He may know some of the moves of the Chiefs’ pass rusher, but Houston also knows which weaknesses he can exploit with Stephenson. After missing the first nine games, Houston showed in his return that he is not quite 100 percent. If Stephenson is at right tackle, Houston will step up his game.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Broncos S Darian Stewart. In the final year of his contract, Stewart appears poised for a significant payday in free agency if the Broncos can’t get him re-signed before March. Stewart intercepted two passes and forced a fumble in the Broncos’ Nov. 13 win at New Orleans, and he has three interceptions in the last four games. He also ranks fourth on the team with 43 tackles, making him one of three defensive backs among the Broncos’ top four tacklers.
FAST FACTS: Chiefs QB Alex Smith passed for 261 yards with a TD and rushed for a score last week. He has a 100-plus passer rating in the past three division road games and aims for his 15th division road game in row with no interceptions. … Chiefs TE Travis Kelce caught seven passes for a season-best 108 yards Sunday, recording the fourth 100-yard performance of his career. Kelce has 49 receptions for 574 yards — making him one of just three tight ends who leads his team in both categories (Carolina’s Greg Olsen and Tennessee’s Delanie Walker). … Broncos QB Trevor Siemian is 7-2 to start his career — tied for third-best start among active NFL passers. Siemian has won all four starts at Sports Authority Field.
PREDICTION: Let’s go with the weird trend between these two rivals and say the Chiefs will prevail in Denver. They have the better QB and RBs, which should be worth something regardless of where the game is played.
Green Bay Packers (4-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-5)
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia. TV: ESPN, Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters.
SERIES HISTORY: 40th regular-season meeting. The Packers lead the series, 25-14. They won the last meeting in 2014, beating the Eagles 53-20 in Green Bay. The Eagles turned the ball over four times in that game and Aaron Rodgers threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Packers were throttled, 42-24, by the Redskins at FedEx Field in Week 11, dropping to 4-6 — their worst record through 10 games since beginning 2005 with a mark of 2-8. Green Bay has lost four straight games for the first time since a five-game skid in 2008.
What has been a forgettable three-game road swing for the Packers comes to an end Monday night. They can save some face and finish the grueling stretch on a high note by snapping their four-game losing streak in the prime-time matchup with the Eagles. No easy task, however, in a hostile environment against a Philadelphia team that is in the thick of a competitive NFC East race that could yield both wild-card spots for the conference.
The tired refrain from the Packers the last few weeks in the throes of their turmoil is they need to get off to a good start. They have fallen behind early in each of the last three games. Unless Green Bay can get a lift from James Starks or newcomer Christine Michael with running the football, the dependency on Aaron Rodgers to throw it upward of 50 times could play right into the hands of the Eagles’ defense. Rodgers is averaging 41 passes per game, putting him on pace to end the season with 656, which would shatter Brett Favre’s team record of 613.
Philadelphia ranks ninth in the NFL against the pass, giving up an average of only 229 yards per game. The Packers have a top-10 passing offense, with an average of 262 yards. Given the Eagles’ stinginess in points allowed, ranking fourth at 18.6, third-down and red-zone success will be vital for Green Bay. The Packers are among the league’s best third-down teams, converting 47 percent, but they rank in the bottom half in the red zone, scoring touchdowns just 55 percent of the time.
Conversely, the Eagles’ defense is No. 2 in the red zone, allowing a touchdown only 43 percent of the time, and ranks third with a third-down conversion rate of a mere 35 percent.
Green Bay’s injury-ravaged and struggling defense must find a way to keep rookie QB Carson Wentz from getting as comfortable as the likes of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota and Washington’s Kirk Cousins have been during the Packers’ four-game slide.
Wentz was the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. The Eagles have experienced the good and the bad with Wentz. He has been productive, in part, because of solid pass protection, taking only 21 sacks. However, Wentz has fumbled a league-high-tying 10 times and has thrown two interceptions in three of the last five games. It is incumbent on Green Bay to force a few miscues by Wentz, as well as contain a formidable rushing attack led by Ryan Mathews.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Packers WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb vs. Eagles CBs Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin and Jalen Mills. The Eagles corners are physical, but not particularly fast. They’re going to struggle against Nelson and Cobb.
–Eagles TE Zach Ertz vs. Packers CB Micah Hyde and SS Morgan Burnett. Both Hyde and Burnett are expected to be matched up against Ertz at some point. Ertz has 26 receptions in the last four games.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Packers RB Christine Michael. The debut by the fourth-year pro in a Packers uniform is expected to happen Monday night. Michael’s midseason arrival in Green Bay comes none too soon, given the lethargic state of the team’s running game. The Packers rank 19th in the league, averaging barely 100 yards per game. Their best runner in the last four games has been quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has gained 163 yards in only 18 attempts, with one touchdown. That’s more rushing yards than No. 2 halfback James Starks has gained for the season (100) and one more rushing touchdown than by any other Green Bay player this season. Michael, who arrived in Green Bay late last week after being claimed off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks, figures to complement Starks, the starter in place of Eddie Lacy (season-ending injured reserve, ankle) since returning from his own injury two games ago. Michael’s abrupt release from the Seahawks as their top rusher this season denied him the opportunity to play the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend. Michael should get that belated shot Monday at Philadelphia.
FAST FACTS: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 351 yards and three TDs last Sunday night, recording his eighth career game with 350 yards and three or more TD (he’s 4-4 in those games). Dating to Week 9 last season, Rodgers has at least one scoring toss in a career-high-tying 19 straight games — the longest active streak in the league. … Eagles QB Carson Wentz was picked off twice by the Seahawks in Week 11 and has six interceptions in his last five games (he threw one INT in his first five games). Wentz is 4-0 at Lincoln Financial Field.
PREDICTION: All due respect to Wentz and an Eagles team that has surprised often this year, it is difficult to pick against Rodgers, even after watching him lose a shootout to Washington QB Kirk Cousins.