SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 6-6. The Ravens won the last meeting, 38-6, last season. QB Joe Flacco threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns as the Ravens ended the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. These teams are very familiar as this is the fifth consecutive year they’ve met. The Ravens have won three of the last four meetings.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Miami’s running game will be the focus. Running back Jay Ajayi and the offensive line must take pressure off quarterback Matt Moore, starting his first game because Jay Cutler is out with fractured ribs. It would help Miami establish the physical presence against the NFL’s worst run defense (145.3 yards per game).
The Ravens need to jump out to an early lead because they are not built to play from behind. Flacco might be limited with throwing downfield because of injuries to several of his receivers. So, Flacco might be reduced to picking up yards with screens and intermediate passes. He cannot afford a turnover. The Ravens need to establish the run to take some pressure off Flacco. The Dolphins, however, are stout up front and will try to force Flacco to beat them. The key to this game could be field position.
Miami, which is 10th (308.2 yards per game) in total defense, is becoming adept at shutting down the run and allowing its pass rush, led by DE Cam Wake (6.0 sacks), to take over. Look for Miami to start with an eight-man front early to stop the run.
If Baltimore has success on the ground, the Dolphins will have a long night.
The Ravens are at their best when they force turnovers. Baltimore has managed just four turnovers in their four losses and 11 in their wins. The Ravens will look to keep Moore under pressure. The key will be shutting down Ajayi, but Baltimore’s run defense has allowed more than 100 yards in the past five games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley vs. Dolphins DE Cameron Wake. Stanley is the anchor of an offensive line that has been ravaged by injuries. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who missed all of training camp with an ailing back, has been sacked 17 times. Wake has been a force for Miami and is tied for 10th in the NFL with six sacks. Miami will look to keep Flacco under constant pressure to force mistakes, with Wake leading the charge.
–Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi vs. Ravens DT Brandon Williams. Williams was back in the lineup Sunday against the Vikings after missing four games with a foot injury. Baltimore allowed 169.5 yards per game and went 1-3 when Williams was out. Even with Williams able to play, the Vikings ran for 169 yards on 33 carries. Williams and the rest of the offensive line could face a bigger challenge against Ajayi, who is averaging 73.7 yards per game. Ajayi was held out of practice this week with knee and elbow issues. Miami will look to establish an effective running game, especially with short week and going on the road.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Dolphins QB Matt Moore. Moore will be making his first start of the season in a Thursday night road game, so the degree of difficulty gets raised slightly. Moore did a good job last week in relief of Jay Cutler (ribs). The big concern is whether he’ll be loose with the ball. He was good last season (9 TDs, 4 INTs, including playoffs) and wasn’t bad last week (2 TDs, 1 INT). Otherwise, Moore’s let-it-rip attitude might be just what this offense needed.
FAST FACTS: Dolphins QB Matt Moore came off the bench when Jay Cutler was injured last week and threw two TD passes, finished with a 102.9 rating. In his past six starts on the road, Moore collected 15 passing TDs vs. 3 INTs. … RB Jay Ajay totaled 207 yards from scrimmage (103.5 per game) in the past two games. … WR Jarvis Landry caught passes for 93 yards and a TD last week and seeks fourth straight week with a TD catch. … DE Cameron Wake made 2.5 sacks last week and has at least two in 16 games since entering the league in 2009, tied for fourth among active players. … S Reshad Jones has caught an interception in two of the last three meetings. … Ravens QB Joe Flacco has completed 117 of 162 (72.2 percent) for 1,417 yards, nine TDs and three INTs in the past five meetings. He completed 36 of 47 (76.6 percent) for 381 yards, four TDs and one INT in his last game vs. Miami. … WR Mike Wallace had 15 TD catches in two seasons with Miami (2013-14). … TE Benjamin Watson has 463 career catches, sixth most among active TEs. … LB C.J. Mosley has 46 tackles (11.5 per game) in his past four at home. He is one of three NFL players with 400 tackles (401), five sacks (7) and five INTs (7) since entering the league in 2014. … S Eric Weddle has an interception in two of the past three games at home. … LB Terrell Suggs has 8.5 sacks and a pick-six in the past seven meetings.
PREDICTION: The Dolphins are changing quarterbacks due to injury (again) and Ravens QB Joe Flacco is running out of targets. If Miami can run the clock and gain yards with Jay Ajayi running and receiving it might make Flacco’s lack of familiar targets moot. But the call here is for the Ravens to get a needed victory at home.
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Penn
PITTSBURGH – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Le’Veon Bell ran for two touchdowns and a team playoff record 167 yards, Antonio Brown caught two first-quarter touchdown passes of at least 50 yards and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ blitzing defense forced three turnovers on a chilly winter day during a 30-12 rout of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in an AFC wild-card game.
Ben Roethlisberger was nearly flawless in running Pittsburgh’s offense, which ran up 219 yards in the first quarter alone, and the Steelers quickly built a 20-3 lead less than 18 minutes into the game while running their NFL-leading winning streak to eight games.
Getting only their second playoff win since last appearing in the Super Bowl during the 2010 season, the AFC North champion Steelers will play at AFC West champion Kansas City next Sunday in a divisional-round game — a team they beat 43-14 on Oct. 2.
With backup quarterback Matt Moore losing two fumbles and throwing an interception during a mid-game span of only three series, the mistake-ridden Dolphins didn’t come close to replicating their 30-15 win over the Steelers on Oct. 16, which started Pittsburgh on a four-game losing streak. Jay Ajayi, who ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns in that game, was held to 33 yards on 16 carries and wasn’t a factor.
The weather — the game-time temperature was 17, with a wind chill of 2 degrees — no doubt was a factor, as attested by line judge Carl Johnson’s frozen whistle. The Dolphins, who practiced all week in the warmth of south Florida for their first playoff game since 2008, huddled around sideline heaters all afternoon in a failed attempt to warm up an offense that never got going as chilly winds blew off the adjacent three rivers and into a frigid Heinz Field.
Brown came into the game with 50 career touchdown catches but none in the postseason, and he quickly changed that. He caught a screen pass and took it 50 yards to the end zone on only the fifth play from scrimmage for the Steelers, and that was just the start on a day Roethlisberger needed to throw only 18 passes — completing 13 for 197 yards.
On Pittsburgh’s next possession, Brown finished off a 90-play drive that took barely three minutes with a 62-yard scoring catch, making him only the fourth player in NFL playoff history with at least two TD receptions of 50 yards in a game — and the first quarter was only about half over. Brown had 119 yards on three catches and two scores before Miami’s offense gained a first down, and ended with 124 yards on five catches.
Bell then took over in his first career playoff game, running for 78 yards while carrying during all 10 times during a Steelers drive that ended with his 1-yard touchdown run, which came one play after he carried it 25 yards to the 1. Bell’s rushing yardage broke Franco Harris’ team record of 158 yards in a postseason game, set during the 1974 season Super Bowl.
The Dolphins had chances to get back into it but kept throwing — or fumbling — them away despite two field goals by Andrew Franks of 38 and 47 yards, and they couldn’t get into the end zone until Damien Williams caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Moore late in the game.
Roethlisberger threw an interception late in the second quarter — his only incompletion on 12 first-half attempts — but Moore turned the ball over by fumbling on a hit from James Harrison on first-and-goal from the Steelers 8. In the second half, Moore fumbled again while being sacked by Mike Mitchell, leading to Chris Boswell’s 34-yard field goal, and Moore was intercepted by linebacker Ryan Shazier, one of five Steelers regulars who were injured and out for the Miami loss more than two months ago.
Adding to the Dolphins’ misery, cornerback Tony Lippett jumped offside while trying to block a Boswell field-goal attempt, and the Steelers went on to make it 30-6 as Bell scored from 8 yards out.
NOTES: RB Le’Veon Bell now owns the Steelers’ regular- season and postseason rushing records. … Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry caught 11 passes for 102 yards, tying a team playoff record for receptions. … It was the fourth-coldest home playoff game in Steelers history. … Mike Tomlin now is 7-5 in the postseason as the Steelers’ coach.
New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, Lambeau Field. TV: FOX.
SERIES HISTORY: 61st meeting. Packers lead series, 32-26-2. The teams meet at Lambeau Field for the second time in three months. Green Bay prevailed 23-16 in a Sunday night matchup Oct. 9. That snapped a three-game winning streak by the Giants going back to the 2011 season, starting with a 37-20 rout of the top-seeded Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs at Green Bay. The Giants have won the last two playoff encounters, both at Lambeau, including a 23-20 overtime victory in the NFC Championship Game during the 2007 season. Green Bay still holds a 4-3 edge in postseason games. All four Packers wins came in the NFL Championship — in 1939, 1944, 1961 and 1962.
KEYS TO THE GAME: After four consecutive losses, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers said Green Bay would “run the table” to make the playoffs. And they did — six consecutive wins.
So now what? Seems to be up to Rodgers.
The Packers’ offense starts and ends with Rodgers, who has been on fire during the winning streak. Over that stretch, Rodgers has thrown 15 touchdown passes and zero interceptions and logged a 121.0 passer rating.
But it’s not just Rodgers’ arm that the Giants’ defense should worry about. Rodgers also finished as the Packers’ second-leading rusher behind Ty Montgomery, recording 369 yards on 67 carries.
Rodgers has such a good feel for the pocket that he can time his escape when the pocket collapses and dart past defensive linemen trying to engulf him.
The Giants’ defense might not be able to slow Rodgers down, but it certainly can start by keeping the slippery quarterback in the pocket and forcing him to step up.
Giants QB Eli Manning has had some big moments at the expense of the Packers, none bigger than upset victories at Lambeau Field in the NFC Championship Game during the 2007 season and in the divisional round of the playoffs in the 2011 season.
Now New York is waiting for Manning to flip the switch and show that playoff magic. But the 36-year-old had one of his most lethargic performances when the Giants came to Lambeau in early October. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers pressured Manning into an erratic 18-of-35 passing performance for 199 yards and a late touchdown in garbage time as the Packers prevailed 23-16.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Packers WRs Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb vs. Giants CBs Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple. The Giants’ cornerbacks have done a solid job this season with limiting the opposition’s top receivers’ total yardage. Jenkins, the leader of the pack, is coming off a back injury and was still sore at midweek. If the Giants are to have success with slowing quarterback Aaron Rodgers down, they will need to make sure their corners blanket Nelson, Adams and Cobb.
–Giants WRs Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard vs. Packers DBs. Green Bay was without its top two CBs when it topped the Giants 23-16 at Lambeau Field on Oct. 9. Even without the injured pair of Sam Shields and Damarious Randall, the Packers surprisingly handcuffed New York’s elite trio. The electrifying Beckham was targeted a team-high 12 times by QB Eli Manning but caught just five for 56 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown in the closing minutes as the Giants tried to rally from a 14-point deficit. Shepard had just two catches for 14 yards in seven targets, while Cruz was shut out on two throws his way. Though Randall has a shot to play after dropping out of the season finale at Detroit on Sunday night with a knee injury, fellow starter Quinten Rollins will be hard-pressed to bounce back in a week’s time. Rollins was in the concussion protocol at midweek, increasing the uncertainty for his unavailability this weekend. Depending on Randall’s status, the Packers may have to depend on LaDarius Gunter, Micah Hyde and possibly undrafted rookie Herb Waters, who was promoted from the practice squad this week. Waters made the switch from wide receiver to cornerback during his season-long stint on the practice squad.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Packers S Andrew Adams. The undrafted rookie free agent has mostly been solid in coverage since inheriting the starting job from the injured Darian Thompson. However, Adams hasn’t really been tested deep downfield and has had mixed results when he has been, such as last week when he lost Washington receiver Pierre Garcon in coverage. The Packers have receivers who can stretch the field, which means Adams is going to have to be alert and not fall for double-pumps or any other trickery that might end up leaving him trailing a receiver.
FAST FACTS: QB Eli Manning passed for 4,027 yards, a franchise-record sixth season with 4,000. … Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. ranked third in the NFL with 101 receptions and 1,367 yards. His 288 career receptions tie for the most in an NFL player’s first three seasons (Miami’s Jarvis Landry). … Giants WR Sterling Shephard ranked second among NFL rookies in receptions (65) and yards (683). … CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie led the Giants with six interceptions, his second career season with at least six. … Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has a 98.2 postseason passer rating, fifth best in NFL history. … Packers RB Ty Montgomery has three rushing TDs in the last four games. … Packers WR Jordy Nelson led the NFL with 14 TD catches and ranked sixth with 1,257 receiving yards. … Packers LB Julius Peppers has 143.5 sacks, fifth most since 1982. He is the NFL player with at least 100 sacks and 10 interceptions (11).
New England Patriots (12-2) at Miami Dolphins (10-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium. TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn.
SERIES HISTORY: 100th regular-season meeting. Dolphins lead the series, 52-47. But the Patriots have won two of the last three, including a 31-24 decision in Week 3 at Foxboro.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots, who have won the AFC East and earned a first-round bye, can secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win or an Oakland loss.
The Dolphins have clinched a playoff spot and can claim the No. 5 seed with a win and a Kansas City loss.
Miami wants to utilize running back Jay Ajayi as much as possible. But the Dolphins also must continue to get plays from all throughout the lineup — offense, defense and special teams.
New England is likely to score at least 30 points, which is why Miami needs contributions from defense and special teams, as they’ve been getting while winning nine of their last 10 games.
Defensively, the Dolphins are unlikely to stop running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 123 yards when these teams met in September. Miami’s run defense is 30th in the NFL (141.8 yards per game) and has allowed 12 teams to rush for more than 100 yards. The Dolphins must find a way to absorb the damage they allow on the ground.
Pass defense will be critical for Miami, which is bad news when you face Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Most likely Miami won’t be able to stop New England from scoring, so it will have to outscore the Patriots, and if the Dolphins get big plays throughout the lineup, as they’ve done recently, victory is possible.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Dolphins pass defense. Baltimore and Buffalo shredded Miami’s pass defense, so you’d have to assume this would be an easy job for Brady. Miami’s pass rush will likely be ineffective because Brady delivers the ball so quickly. Coverage will be at a premium, and that’s not favorable for the Dolphins. Turnovers and third-down stops will be key for Miami; if the Dolphins can thrive at both, it would become a more manageable game. But, if they struggle, it could get ugly.
–Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi vs. Patriots run defense. Ajayi has three 200-yard rushing games, including last week’s 206-yard effort at Buffalo. That game included a 57-yard run in overtime. If Ajayi gives the Dolphins’ offense a solid foundation, the play-action pass becomes a huge factor in Miami’s favor. Ideally, Ajayi leads the way offensively, which would be a problem for New England.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount. New England’s lead back has had his most impressive season while turning 30 this season. He’s set career highs for carries, yards and touchdowns, leading the NFL in the latter category with 17 scores. But, Blount has slowed a bit over the last couple weeks, picking up just 31 yards on 17 carries (1.8 avg.) in Denver and a mere 50 yards on 20 attempts (2.5 avg.) against the Jets, failing to reach at least 3 yards a carry for the third and fourth time this season. Blount had averaged at least 4 yards a carry in the previous four contests and it would be nice to get the big back rolling again heading into the postseason, given this week’s matchup with a Miami defense giving up 4.9 yards per carry.
FAST FACTS: Patriots QB Tom Brady has 12.5-1 TD/INT ratio (25 pass TDs vs. 2 INTs), the second highest in NFL history. He ranks second in NFL with a 110.7 rating and can clinch a fifth season with a 100 or higher rating, fifth most in league history. … Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount had two rush TDs last week and leads the NFL with a franchise-record 17 rushing TDs. He aims for a fifth game in a row with a rushing TD. … Patriots CB Malcolm Butler had two INTs last week and leads the team with four. … Dolphins QB Matt Moore has six passing TDs vs. two INTs in the past two weeks. He passed for 281 yards and three TDs in his last start vs. the Patriots on Dec. 24, 2011. … Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi rushed for 206 yards and a TD last week and is the fourth player in NFL history with three games of 200 rushing yards in a season. He ranks fourth in team history with 1,213 rushing yards. … Dolphins LB Cameron Wake has 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and an INT in his past 10 games; he has a sack in three straight games. He’s tied for second in the NFL with five forced fumbles.
PREDICTION: With a chance to secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs last year, the Patriots flubbed Week 17 in Miami and saw Denver use the home field to edge it for the AFC’s Super Bowl berth. The bet here is that they won’t present Oakland with a similar opportunity this year, as New England figures to take advantage of a shorthanded Dolphins secondary and limit Ajayi’s success, forcing Moore to do the heavy lifting. That’s not a good proposition for Miami in this one — or in the postseason.
LONDON – (Wire Service Report) – The Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints will play a regular-season game in London in 2017. Sources associated with the Dolphins team confirmed reports Sunday that the two teams will play across the Atlantic next season. Miami will be the host team. The NFL has yet to determine a site or date.
Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino
The Saints haven’t played in London since 2008, when they defeated the San Diego Chargers in their only trip overseas. Miami is somewhat of a regular in London, visiting in 2007, 2014 and 2015. The Dolphins own a 1-2 record in Wembley Stadium. Miami hosting is part of agreement reached in 2014 among NFL clubs that within five years of making a Super Bowl bid, a franchise is required to be the home team for an international game. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the only team to play more games in England than the Dolphins.
Three NFL games are expected to be played next year in England. The other matchups will be announced in the next few weeks. This season’s final game in London ended Sunday with the Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals playing to a 27-27 tie.
TAMPA — (Wire Service Report) – Hurricane Matthew continues to impact not only the state of Florida but also its football teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are scheduled to play Monday night in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers, weather permitting.
The NFL released a statement Thursday afternoon saying it was “conducting contingency planning” for the Bucs-Panthers game, as well as Sunday’s scheduled game between the Titans and Dolphins in Miami, more directly in the path of the hurricane.
“We are in close contact with local and state authorities about the hurricane,” the statement said. “As always, our overriding concern is for public safety and not doing anything that will divert important resources away from communities that may be in distress. Consistent with that, we are conducting contingency planning for the Tennessee at Miami game as well as the Tampa Bay at Carolina game.”
The hurricane is expected to move north along Florida’s shoreline, then track east into the Atlantic, but those are just tracking models. Charlotte is fairly inland compared to the hurricane’s projected path, but the NFL will continue to monitor the storm.
Indianapolis Colts (1-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (0-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 9:30 a.m. ET, Wembley Stadium, London. TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl.
*(Note Early Kick-off time)
SERIES HISTORY: 31st regular-season meeting. Colts lead series, 21-9. Indianapolis has a 11-5 mark against the Jaguars in home games and are 10-4 on the road. The Colts have posted wins in six of the last seven meetings. Jacksonville, however, won the last matchup of the two franchises with a 51-16 blowout on their own field. Indianapolis has swept the AFC South series with the Jaguars six times (2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2014) while also splitting their series six times (2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015). Jacksonville has won the home-and-home series once (2011). The Colts are 6-1 against Jacksonville at the former Hoosier/RCA Dome and are currently 5-3 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Indianapolis has won 10 of the 15 games played at the Jaguars’ EverBank Stadium.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Jaguars are playing their fourth consecutive year in Wembley Stadium and it is the first trip for the Colts.
The Jaguars are stubborn about not to abandoning the running game despite having the second lowest total of rushing yards (165) in the NFL after three games, behind only Minnesota (153). This could be the week that the Jaguars top the 70-yard figure for the first time this season. Chris Ivory should be closer to full strength than he was a week ago and that gives Jacksonville two strong runners in Ivory and T.J. Yeldon.
However, the Colts permitted only 37 rushing yards in last week’s win over the Chargers.
The game figures to match two of the better young quarterbacks in the league in Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, although so far this season is redefining the term young at quarterback. Each passed for more than 800 yards in the first three games this year. Both could hit the 300-yard plateau this game, which may be fun for a crowd that is accustom to seeing the ball kicked around. The secondary does a better job in shutting down the opposing quarterback could decide this.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Jaguars secondary vs. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. The Jaguars are still two starters short when they employ their nickel defense against strong passing teams like the Colts. Cornerback Prince Amukamara had a strong game in the season opener but has missed the last two with a nagging hamstring. Aaron Colvin was suspended the first four games of the season by the NFL (substance abuse) and will sit out his fourth game on Sunday. Luck is the fourth straight elite quarterback the secondary has faced thus far after going against Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco. The secondary hasn’t been all bad as it held Rodgers to less than 200 yards and Flacco to 214. The Jaguars didn’t face Luck last year as he was injured for both of their games.
–Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles vs. Indianapolis defense. There’s little doubt that as Indianapolis continue to get defensive players back from injuries, the Colts defense is getting stronger. When a defensive unit allowed only two offensive touchdowns in the last two games (against Denver and San Diego), it is getting the job done. That’s the same San Diego offense that scored five touchdowns, including four TD passes by Philip Rivers against the Jaguars the previous week. Safeties Clayton Geathers and T.J. Green have become an effective duo in shutting down passing attacks while cornerback Vontae Davis continues to fight through an ankle injury. Bortles passed for 843 yards in his first three games this year, but has more interceptions (6) than TDs (5).
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Colts OG Joe Haeg. The rookie from North Dakota State has become one of the Colts’ better offensive linemen in a short amount of time. His versatility is impressive as Haeg can play both guards as well as right tackle. A tackle in college, Haeg shows the ability to slide inside to guard and not lose any of his effectiveness. He made his first NFL start in last week’s win over San Diego, opening as the Colts first team right guard and then making the move out to right tackle when starter Joe Reitz was sidelined with a back issue.
FAST FACTS: Colts QB Andrew Luck was sacked 100 times in his first three seasons. In comparison, former Colts QB Peyton Manning was sacked 56 times in his first three. Luck has won his past five starts vs. Jacksonville, with 1,389 yards, eight TDs and two interceptions. … Jags WR Allen Hurns has 14 catches, 221 yards and two TDs in his last two games vs. the Colts. … Tight end Julius Thomas has five TDs in three games vs. Indy.
PREDICTION: The Jags may be familiar with Wembley Stadium, but the game is still American football and the Colts should give fans there a show on how the passing game works in the NFL.
OUR PICK: Colts, 32-21.
Tennessee Titans (1-2) at Houston Texans (2-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NRG Stadium, Houston. TV: CBS, Tom McCarthy, Adam Archuleta.
SERIES HISTORY: 29th meeting. Titans lead the series, 15-13. Tennessee dominated this series in the early stages, but Houston has won four in a row and seven of the past eight.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Titans got potentially good news with the injury to the Texans’ J.J. Watt, who has tormented them over the years. Titans coaches say Watt’s absence won’t affect their game plan, because of the way the Texans move defensive linemen around to try to find mismatches, but they can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief with Watt missing. Look for the Titans to try to establish the run as they did last week with DeMarco Murray. Passing-wise, the Titans have to take care of the football better than they have.
The Texans will try to exploit Marcus Mariota’s penchant for turnovers. They must bottle up Murray and Derrick Henry. The offense needs to improve its efficiency as a rushing attack and improve in the red-zone area and cut down on turnovers.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Titans OL vs. Texans pass rush. The Titans’ offensive line has played well, opening holes for running back DeMarco Murray, who had 114 yards last week. Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin have formed a strong tandem on the edges, while Josh Klein came in at right guard for Chance Warmack and did a credible job in his first start. The Texans, even without Watt, still have good rushers in Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, who must be contained.
–Titans secondary vs. DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins is perhaps the best receiver the Titans have faced thus far this season. The secondary, which will be without Da’Norris Searcy, has been bend-but-don’t-break for three games now and will have an extra challenge not only with Hopkins, but with Will Fuller.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: T Taylor Lewan graded out very well against the Raiders, but his penalty at the end of the game cost the Titans a chance to tie late in the contest. Lewan is probably going to be a target from the officials, given his penchant for penalties.
FAST FACTS: Titans QB Marcus Mariota has 866 passing yards, five TDs and a 92.6 rating in his past three division games. In seven career road games, he has thrown for 12 TDs and just two interceptions, for 104.9 rating. … Since 2013, Titans RB DeMarco Murray leads the NFL with 29 rushing TDs and is second with 3,913 rushing yards. … Titans WR Andre Johnson played 12 seasons with Houston (2003-14) and is the franchise leader in catches (1,012), yards (13,597) and receiving TDs (64). … Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins has 24 catches for 449 yards and four TDs in the past three meetings. … Houston rookie WR Will Fuller has nine catches for 211 yards and a TD in his first two home games. He leads NFL rookies with 242 receiving yards.
PREDICTION: The Texans will be eager to put up some points after stunningly being shut out by the Patriots to start Week 3. Hopkins and Fuller should find room to run and continue Houston’s recent dominance in the series.
OUR PICK: Texans, 24-17.
Cleveland Browns (0-3) at Washington Redskins (1-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, FedEx Field, Landover, Md. TV: CBS, Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots, Stacy Dales.
SERIES HISTORY: 46th meeting between two original NFL franchises. Cleveland leads the series, 33-11-1. The Redskins have won three of the last four games, including a 38-21 victory on Dec. 16, 2012 — notable for being quarterback Kirk Cousins’ first career start.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Browns unleashed Terrelle Pryor on the Dolphins last week as a surprise part-time quarterback. Pryor threw five passes, completing three, and ran four times while also catching eight passes. Quarterback Cody Kessler was off the field for those plays. The Redskins will be expecting Pryor at quarterback, so Kessler might be in the huddle and line up as a receiver in some formations to keep Washington guessing.
The Redskins still need to need to be better in the red zone. It’s not reasonable to expect kicker Dustin Hopkins to remain perfect and bail them out. Kirk Cousins has thrown two interceptions in the end zone through three games.
Washington also must be better against the run. It will be a challenge to stop Browns running back Isaiah Crowell, who is averaging 6.1 yards per carry on 45 attempts.
The Redskins have been putting together long drives through three games. Moving the ball hasn’t been an issue at all. Cousins has been diligent at evenly distributing the ball to tight end Jordan Reed and wide receivers Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder. Expect them to severely test a Cleveland secondary that could be without star corner Joe Haden.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Redskins WR DeSean Jackson, who has five receptions over 25 yards already this season, vs. Browns CB Joe Haden, who missed last week’s game vs. Miami with a groin injury. Haden is a lockdown corner with the physicality to give Jackson problems – especially given he has ankle and knee problems of his own.
–Browns QB/WR Terrelle Pryor, who was dynamic at two positions against Miami, vs. Redskins CB Josh Norman, off to a good start in his first year with Washington after signing a $75 million deal in April. Pryor completed 3 of 5 passes for at quarterback and he caught eight passes for 144 yards. Pryor is first player in NFL history with 140-plus receiving yards, 20-plus rushing yards and 30-plus passing yards in a game. Norman is still looking for his first interception with Washington, but has a forced fumble.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Browns kicker Cody Parkey. He was signed one day before the Browns played the Dolphins because kicker Patrick Murray was injured in practice. Parkey, a Pro Bowl kicker for the Eagles in 2014 but out of football last year, never practiced until the day of the game with the Dolphins and it showed. He made two field goals but missed three, including a 46-yard attempt that went wide left on the final play of regulation with the score 24-24. Nevertheless, coach Hue Jackson is sticking with Parkey, but this could be his last chance. If Parkey, 24, struggles again the Browns will likely be shopping for a new kicker.
FAST FACTS: Browns rookie QB Cody Kessler made first career start last week, passed for 244 yards. RB Isaiah Crowell is tied for 2nd in NFL with 274 rush yards. Had career-long 85-yard TD run in Week 2, has 5 rush TDs in past 7 games. … Redskins RB Matt Jones aims for third game in rown row with 60-plus yards rushing.
PREDICTION: The Browns can’t lose every game, can they? They were a makeable field goal away from victory last week. The Redskins are probably favored in most places, but are hardly a dominant team. Hard to say what will happen when two frustrated franchises meet.
OUR PICK: Browns, 28-17.
Seattle Seahawks (2-1) at New York Jets (1-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. TV: FOX, Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver.
SERIES HISTORY: 19th regular-season meeting. Seahawks lead series, 10-8. Seattle has won the last two regular-season meetings, but has not beaten the Jets in New York since Sept. 1983. The Jets’ 32-31 win over Seattle in 1998 helped bring instant replay back to the NFL as Vinny Testaverde was credited with a 5-yard touchdown run when only his helmet crossed the goal line.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Seahawks struggled to move the ball against the strong defensive lines of Miami and Los Angeles to open the season, and the offense could be in for another tough day against a Jets defense ranked third against the run. With QB Russell Wilson dealing with left knee and right ankle injuries, the read-option and rollouts so important to coach Darrell Bevell’s playbook will likely be limited. RB Christine Michael (5.2 yards per carry) will again be the workhorse with Thomas Rawls sidelined, and staying out of constant third-and-long situations will be critical.
The Jets need production out of their ground game, with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick coming off a six-interception debacle at Kansas City last week. RB Matt Forte is averaging 3.9 yards per carry and always brings a versatile weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. Seattle allows only 3.5 yards per carry and, while the Seahawks have only one interception on the season, the Jets know they will be gambling if Fitzpatrick is forced to push the ball downfield on long passing downs.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham vs. Jets SS Calvin Pryor. After Chiefs TE Travis Kelce burned the Jets for six catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, Pryor tweeted, “I have to perform better.” Graham is finally close to 100 percent following surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon and is coming off his first game as a Seahawk with 100 receiving yards and a touchdown.
–Seahawks DT Tony McDaniel vs. Jets LG James Carpenter. A former first-round pick by the Seahawks, Carpenter signed a four-year, $19.1 million contract with the Jets in 2015. He’ll be familiar with McDaniel, who re-signed with the Seahawks in August. And Seattle will move Michael Bennett and others inside to test Carpenter’s agility on obvious passing downs.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Jets WR Brandon Marshall is dealing with a sore knee and may not have Richard Sherman shadowing him, with Eric Decker almost equally as dangerous on the other side of the field — although Decker is dealing with a shoulder injury of his own. That could give Marshall a good opportunity to have a big impact working against DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane.
FAST FACTS: Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin has 13 touchdowns in his last nine regular-season games. … The Jets are 10-7 all-time against the franchise’s former coaches (Sammy Baugh, Bruce Coslet, Pete Carroll, Bill Parcells, Herman Edwards, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan) who have opposed them. Carroll was the Jets’ coach in 1994.
PREDICTION: Just as Wilson was getting over an ankle injury, he suffered a sprained knee against San Francisco last week. With limited mobility against St. Louis’ stout defensive line in Week 2, Wilson managed to lead the offense to a mere three points. The Jets also boast a deep and talented D-line that will help control the field position — as long as Fitzpatrick can avoid another rash of turnovers.
OUR PICK: Jets, 20-13.
Buffalo Bills (1-2) at New England Patriots (3-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn.
SERIES HISTORY: Bills at Patriots: 112th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 68-42-1. The battles date back to the original AFL days, but of late New England has dominated the Bills as much as any opponent in the Brady/Belichick era. The Patriots are 27-3 against Buffalo since 2001, including a 14-1 mark at Gillette Stadium. The Bills have often put up a fight despite all the losing, with six of the last seven games decided by one score.
KEYS TO THE GAME: New England’s offensive game plan is tough to project given the fact that there is uncertainty about whether Jimmy Garoppolo (shoulder) or Jacoby Brissett (thumb) will be playing quarterback. While there is some carryover in terms of what the two players do — both run boots and throw on the run — things would be a lot simpler and maybe more gimmicky with the rookie Brissett making his second start.
Either way, New England will look to remain balanced on offense. LeGarrette Blount leads the NFL in rushing yards and attempts through three games. The offensive line has been better in the first month at giving the big back room wear down defenses and hit big runs late. Assuming the score remains close or in New England’s favor, balance will again be key.
Much of Buffalo’s offensive plan will depend on the health of receiver Sammy Watkins. If Watkins is out again, you can be sure that coach Bill Belichick will concentrate on taking LeSean McCoy out of Buffalo’s attack and make Tyrod Taylor try to beat the Patriots through the air, a proposition that seems almost impossible. Without Watkins, the Bills probably won’t have a choice but to try to establish McCoy, which they did successfully last week as McCoy gained 110 of Buffalo’s 208 rushing yards.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Patriots LB Jamie Collins vs. Bills RB LeSean McCoy. These two might be the best all-around athletes on the field. McCoy is coming off a big 100-yard day in beating Arizona. Collins is coming off a 14-tackle performance with an interception against the Texans. Buffalo’s focus will be on running the ball with McCoy. New England will focus on stopping the run with Collins. It’s a battle that will be a first step toward deciding how the game plays out.
–Patriots QB vs. Bills HC Rex Ryan. Whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett, New England faces Buffalo with a relatively inexperienced young quarterback. For all his faults, Ryan can dial up some interesting defensive game plans that give quarterbacks trouble. He does it in a variety of ways and how he chooses to deploy his talented unit against New England’s second- or third-string quarterback will be interesting to watch. How the youngsters respond could decide the game.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bills LB Zach Brown. When Brown signed in the offseason after four years with the Titans, it was thought he would be a third-down linebacker and a special-teams player. However, with rookie second-round pick Reggie Ragland out for the season, Brown has stepped up as a starter next to Preston Brown in the middle of the 3-4 scheme, and he has far exceeded expectations. He’s the Bills’ best coverage linebacker and, even more impressive, he’s tied for the NFL lead with 34 tackles.
FAST FACTS: Bills RB LeSean McCoy rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns last week. He’s the only NFL player with 7,000 rushing yards (7,277) and 2,000 receiving yards (2,315) since 2010. … The Bills recorded five sacks and four interceptions in a win over Arizona in Week 3. … The Patriots have won 21 of the past 22 division home games. They have won 23 of the past 25 vs. Buffalo and are 14-1 (.933) in the past 15 home meetings.
PREDICTION: Bill Belichick simply knows how to beat the Bills in Foxborough, no matter the quarterback. LeGarrette Blount looms large in this one.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 23-21.
Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Atlanta Falcons (2-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, Georgia Dome, Atlanta. TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Chris Spielman, Krista Pink.
SERIES HISTORY: 43rd regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 25-17. Panthers have five of the past seven, but Atlanta handed Carolina its only regular-season loss in their Week 16 meeting last season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers have given up 12 sacks through three games and QB Cam Newton has been hit numerous other times as the protection has been extremely shaky. That shouldn’t be as big a concern against a Falcons defense that has recorded only three sacks while allowing an average of 313 passing games and 433 total yards per game. Carolina would like to get the running game led by Cameron Artis-Payne going early with Jonathan Stewart (hamstring) expected to be sidelined for a second consecutive week and the Panthers facing an NFL-high 31 third-and-6 or longer situations. The Falcons are also allowing 4.7 yards per carry, so getting off the field will likely prove a challenge.
Atlanta enters with the league’s top-ranked scoring offense at 34.7 points per game and has a plethora of playmakers in the running and passing games. Carolina’s defense should prove the stiffest test to date, however, and look for coordinator Kyle Shanahan to get RBs Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman involved early in an effort to help protect the defense. Atlanta is averaging 5.0 yards per carry, and the tandem has also combined for 19 receptions. QB Matt Ryan clearly feels more comfortable in his second year in Shanahan’s system, and has already connected with 11 different receivers. That type of depth and ability to strike underneath and over the top will stress Carolina’s secondary.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Panthers WRs Ted Ginn/Devin Funchess vs. Falcons CB Robert Alford. The Vikings focused on negating Kelvin Benjamin on the other side and Carolina’s offense bogged down after scoring 10 quick points last week. With Pro Bowl CB Desmond Trufant set to shadow Benjamin this week, the Panthers need Ginn and/or Funchess to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities on the other side of the field.
–Falcons TE Jacob Tamme vs. Panthers Ss Tre Boston/Kurt Coleman. Tamme enters as Atlanta’s leading receiver with 14 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. He’s not fleet of foot, but is a reliable route-runner with the ability to move the chains with opponents so heavily focused on WR Julio Jones. Carolina’s linebackers also figure to see coverage duties against Tamme.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers DE Charles Johnson – He has only 1.0 sack in his past 12 regular-season games, but the Georgia native admitted he gets fired up for this matchup and has 4.0 sacks in the past six meetings.
FAST FACTS: The Panthers have not lost consecutive regular-season contests in 23 games. … In two games against Atlanta as a rookie in 2014, Benjamin totaled 10 receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown. … Jones had 178 yards receiving and a touchdown in the last meeting and is averaging 128.5 yards with touchdowns in his past six home games. … The Falcons have allowed a touchdown to an opposing tight end in all three games this season. Panthers TE Greg Olsen leads the team with 18 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.
PREDICTION: The Falcons are revving on all cylinders offensively and are particularly explosive at home, but Carolina is a different animal than Tampa Bay, Oakland or New Orleans. The reigning NFC champs are 1-2 and highly motivated not to drop a key divisional road game. QB Cam Newton leads an offense that should steadily move the chains and keep the pressure up against the league’s 30th-ranked defense.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 34-31.
Oakland Raiders (2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (3-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore. TV: CBS, Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein.
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting, Ravens lead series 6-2. Raiders snapped a four-game losing streak in Week 2 last season with a 37-33 win as quarterback Derek Carr completed 30 of 46 passes for 351 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Michael Crabtree caught nine passes for 111 yards and a touchdown and Amari Cooper seven passes for 109 yards, including a 68-yard scoring pass. The Raiders have never won against the Ravens in Baltimore, losing their inaugural game at Memorial Stadium in 1996 and all four games at their current home. In the lone postseason game between the two, the Ravens beat the Raiders 16-3 on Jan, 14, 2011 in the AFC championship game at the Coliseum en route to a Super Bowl championship
KEYS TO THE GAME: As much as the Raiders love their passing game, being successful on the ground against the Ravens would be a ticket to their first win in Baltimore that wasn’t against a franchise named the
Colts. In particular, look for the Raiders to run at Terrell Suggs to try and slow his pass rush, and attempt to even out a run-pass ratio that at the moment stands at 118 pass plays and 76 rushes.
Defensively, the Raiders must do what they can to make Joe Flacco uncomfortable and unable to reel off an endless string of completions as he did against Jacksonville, and as was done to them in the first two games of the season. Run defense is a concern for the Raiders, but the Ravens come in averaging only 3.3 yards per carry.
The Raiders have injuries on the offensive line and have already used five different players at right tackle.
The Ravens will look to exploit this weakness by trying to get the running game revved up. This should also help loosen the secondary for Flacco, who looks to throw the ball downfield more this season. Oakland is ranked last in the NFL by allowing 476 yards (26.3 points) per game. Baltimore will need to capitalize with touchdowns in the red zone as opposed to settling for field goals.
The Ravens must keep the pressure on QB Derek Carr, who threw for a career-high 351 yards with three touchdowns in a 37-33 victory against them last season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Ravens WR Steve Smith vs. Raiders CB Sean Smith. Sean Smith is coming off an eight-catch, 87-yard game against Jacksonville and at age 37, still has the skill and know-how to get open and work a cornerback. Sean Smith had an interception in the Raiders win over Tennessee and was very solid in coverage throughout the day after coming off two shaky performances to start the season. At 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Steve Smith is a smaller receiver, which can give the 6-foot-3 Sean Smith some trouble. However, with Steve Smith does not have the quickness of say a Brandin Cooks, the New Orleans wide out who got Sean Smith benched in Week 1 after a 98-yard touchdown reception. Steve Smith caught 10 passes for 150 yards against the Raiders last season.
–Raiders DE Khalil Mack vs. Ravens T Ronnie Stanley. Mack graded out well in the first two games but didn’t have a sack. There was some pressure from Mack exerted on Marcus Mariota in Week 3, but overall it was his worst game of three. At some point, some offensive lineman is going to pay. Mack can line up on either side, but the most intriguing matchup against Baltimore will be to put him in against Stanley, the rookie first-round draft pick who has been a plug-in-and-play starter. Stanley is coming off a rough game against Jacksonville, committing two penalties and getting beaten for a sack by Yannick Ngakoue.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Raiders center Rodney Hudson. He drew his first holding penalty as a Raider against Tennessee and has been everything the team hoped for when he signed a five-year, $44.5 million deal in the off-season. Hudson excelled at pass blocking last season, but with Kelechi Osemele on his left side and Gabe Jackson to the right, has also been a key part of a rushing offense that is ranked second in the NFL. and is averaging an eye-popping 5.9 yards per carry.
FAST FACTS: The last time the Raiders finished out of the top 10 in penalties was last century, 1999 with their 98 penalties ranking No. 21 in the NFL. The Raiders led the league five times in the next 17 seasons and currently lead the NFL with 31 penalties. … Ravens WR Steve Smith had 10 catches for 150 yards in last game vs. Raiders and ranks 10th in NFL history with 14,102 receiving yards.
PREDICTION: The Raiders are travelling East for the second consecutive week (Oakland is 4-22 in the Eastern time zone over the past 10 seasons, the worst mark in the NFL) and this will be tougher than last weken’s visit to Tennessee.
OUR PICK: Ravens, 32-28.
Detroit Lions (1-2) at Chicago Bears (0-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Soldier Field, Chicago. TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin.
SERIES HISTORY: 172nd regular-season meeting. Bears lead series, 95-71-5. The Lions have won the last six and a victory would give them their longest winning streak in a series that began in 1930.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Ranked last in the NFL in time of possession, 30th in rushing and scoring, the Bears are asking a lot of a defense decked by injuries in the first three weeks of the season. The game plan against the Lions begins with finding a running game. Rookie Jordan Howard could start at running back with Jeremy Langford (ankle) hobbled. That change will limit how aggressive offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains can be regardless of whether Jay Cutler (thumb) can play; Brian Hoyer was efficient at Dallas last week, and made second-year WR Kevin White look like a downfield threat for the first time in his career.
The Lions are having as much difficulty running the ball as the Bears. The Bears’ defensive front was exposed last week trying to blitz to make up for using backups in key roles. Giving up 199 rushing yards last week made it clear there are defenders out of their gaps. Detroit’s new pitch-catch pairing of Matthew Stafford – who had 703 yards and seven touchdowns in two wins over Chicago last season — and Marvin Jones has been lethal, and Bears CB Jacoby Glenn has been toasted on deep throws.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Lions WR Marvin Jones vs. Bears CB Tracy Porter. Jones leads the NFL in receiving three weeks into the season, but as the Lions’ only deep threat he may face more defensive attention going forward. Porter has been the Bears’ best cornerback the last two years, but he was a favorite target of Stafford last year (when he was covering Calvin Johnson). Expect the Lions to look his way often on Sunday.
–Lions DE Kerry Hyder vs. Bears LT Charles Leno. With DE Ziggy Ansah expected to miss Sunday’s game with a high ankle sprain, Hyder should make his second straight start at defensive end. Hyder, who spent most of last year on the practice squad, has been a revelation with four sacks in three games, but the Lions need to generate more pressure than they did last week. The Bears have a solid interior line, so much of that duty will fall on Hyder and Devin Taylor.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Lions S Rafael Bush. Tavon Wilson beat Bush out for the starting strong safety job this summer, but Wilson didn’t finish last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers because of a neck injury. Wilson practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, but his status is uncertain. Bush will see plenty of playing time both at safety and in the Lions’ nickel package. The Lions were burned by big plays and in zone coverage last week, and Bush’s experience could come in handy against top Bears playmaker Alshon Jeffery.
FAST FACTS: The Bears have 12 players on injured reserve. … The Lions have six consecutive wins over the Bears. … Detroit QB Matthew Stafford passed for 385 yards and three TDs in Week 3. He threw has thrown for 703 yards and seven TDs in the past two vs. Chicago. … Detroit RB Theo Riddick ranks second on team with 16 receptions. Since 2015, he has 96 receptions and 827 yards, most among NFL RBs. … Chicago WR Alshon Jeffery aims to score vs. Detroit for the fourth straight game. He averages 97.8 yards per game in six career meetings and has scored five times.
PREDICTION: Matthew Stafford has found a go-to guy and the Lions are deep enough to spread out the Bears, who rank 10th in the NFL in pass defense but on the legs of facing three first-year starters in three games. The Bears should have a chance to win it, but Detroit is capable of matching every score.
OUR PICK: Lions, 27-21.
Denver Broncos (3-0) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: CBS, Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots.
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 6-2. Broncos have won three straight. Most historic meeting between these two teams was on Oct. 3, 2004, when the Broncos edged the Bucs 16-13 in John Lynch’s emotional return to Tampa after being released by the Bucs and joining the Broncos the previous offseason.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos’ offense continues to develop under first-year starting QB Trevor Siemian but the scoring output has been impressive, courtesy in large part to a defense that provides a consistent diet of short fields to exploit. Siemian was fortunate to avoid a pair of potential interceptions early last week and his ability to protect the ball will again be critical. Denver is getting a modest average of 3.8 yards per carry out of RBs C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker, so Siemian is tasked with his share of long passing downs and the coaching staff has begun to open up the play-action vertical passing game.
Tampa Bay is minus-6 in turnover ratio, with the defense producing just one interception while quarterback Jameis Winston has thrown six picks. With Doug Martin sidelined for a second straight week by a hamstring injury, Winston needs more help from Charles Sims (3.4 yards per carry). Arizona mercilessly crashed the edges around Winston last week and he’ll see more of the same from Von Miller and Shane Ray. Sims is an excellent receiver and has 12 catches through three games, so he could serve as an outlet weapon to thwart that pass rush. Inevitably, it comes down to the offensive line proving Winston with time in the picket, and his ability to step up and make plays – not mistakes – in the face of pressure.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Broncos C Matt Paradis/Michael Schofield vs. Bucs DT Gerald McCoy. Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins had success pressuring the interior of Denver’s offensive line last week and McCoy has the ability to provide the same disruptive presence. Paradis has emerged as the steady leader of Denver’s o-line, while McCoy enters with eight tackles and a sack on the season.
–Broncos CB Aqib Talib vs. Bucs WR Mike Evans. Two players who rely heavily on their size and physicality should square off regularly. Evans enters with a team-high 21 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns. Also in the secondary, watch for Chris Harris Jr. when he slides inside in the Broncos’ nickel and dime packages to work against Bucs slot receiver Adam Humphries (18 catches for 201 yards).
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bucs LT Donovan Smith – With Demar Dotson likely receiving significant help working against Miller on the other side, Smith will have to be able to hold his own against Ray, who is coming off a career-high 3.0 sacks against Cincinnati last week.
FAST FACTS: The Broncos’ combined margin of victory over the past two weeks has been 26 points. Their margin of victory in their previous six wins was 34 points (5.7 average). … Sims has 100-plus yards from scrimmage in three consecutive games.
PREDICTION: The Bucs have an explosive offense, but it can also implode when the ground game is shut down and Winston is forcing the ball downfield in the face of pressure. No one supplies that pressure better than the Broncos, although this game could be closer than expected if the Bucs get their hands on a few of Siemian’s passes.
OUR PICK: Broncos, 23-17.
Los Angeles Rams (2-1) at Arizona Cardinals (1-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz. TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Peter Schrager.
SERIES HISTORY: 75th regular-season meeting. Cardinals lead series, 37-35-2. The Cardinals played the Rams 30 times between 1964 and 1994, when the Rams were in Los Angeles. The rivalry began in 1937 when the Cardinals were located in Chicago and the Rams were based in Cleveland. Arizona has won 14 of the past 19 meetings, including six of the past nine at home.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Rams will try to replicate much of what they did offensively against the Bucs last week — at least the four-touchdown part — but try to get RB Todd Gurley pointed to a breakout game.
On defense, the Rams’ talented defensive line needs to get consistent pressure on quarterback Carson Palmer and force him into mistakes. Palmer threw four interceptions last week against Buffalo, and a similar performance Sunday probably would lead to a Rams victory.
Don’t be surprised if the Cardinals shelve some of their deep shots down the field against the Rams and their fearsome front seven. The long balls haven’t been working all that well anyway and Palmer is already on pace to get sacked 48 times — twice as much as a year ago. Look for the Cardinals to try and wear the Rams’ defense down with a ground and pound running game anchored by second-year pro David Johnson.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Rams DE Robert Quinn vs. Cardinals LT Jared Veldheer. Quinn has faced Arizona nine times and recorded nine sacks. Veldheer has started 35 games since 2014 and anchors the left side of a very talented Cardinals offensive line.
–Rams QB Case Keenum vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson. Not only does the All-Pro cornerback have two interceptions in his past two games, he also has been known to be a rascal of a pass defender against the Rams. In 10 games against them, Peterson has six interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 11 passes defensed. He also returned one pick for a touchdown and had two punt returns for touchdowns. His six career picks against the Rams are his most against any NFL team.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: RB Todd Gurley. The second-year running back had a slow start to the 2016 season, but he showed some life in the second half of Sunday’s win over the Buccaneers, running for 85 yards. The Rams believe he is closing in on a Todd Gurley type break out. If so, it will change the dynamic of the Rams offense as it will open the passing game for Keenum.
FAST FACTS: Rams QB Case Keenum passed for 190 yards and two touchdowns last week as he won for the seventh time in his past 10 starts. … Rams RB Todd Gurley rushed for 85 yards and two TDs in Week 3. He rushed for 146 yards against Arizona last October. … Rams DT Aaron Donald has recorded a sack in two of the past three games vs. Arizona. … Cardinals QB Carson Palmer has recorded 300 passing yards in four of his past six division games. He threw for 356 yards and two scores in the last meeting. … Cardinals RB David Johnson rushed for 83 yards and two scores last week. He had 99 rushing yards and a receiving TD last time out vs. the Rams. … LBs Chandler Jones and Markus Golden lead Arizona with three sacks each.
PREDICTION: As rough a time as the Cardinals have had in the first three weeks, it is pretty hard to see them dropping two games behind the Rams. Johnson figures to lead the way to a much-needed home win.
OUR PICK: Cardinals, 24-14.
New Orleans Saints (0-3) at San Diego Chargers (1-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego. TV: FOX, Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Chargers lead series, 7-4. The Saints visit San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium for the first time since 2004 as their last two meetings with the Chargers were played in London’s Wembley Stadium in 2008 and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in 2012. The Saints have won the past two meetings — 37-32 in London and 31-24 in New Orleans — and have taken three of the last four meetings after the Chargers claimed six of the first seven meetings in the series.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Saints QB Drew Brees knows he doesn’t have any room to let his foot off the gas with New Orleans’ defense decimated by injuries at all three levels. The Saints’ running backs have 51 carries compared to Brees’ 140 pass attempts, although to be fair New Orleans has often being trying to play catch-up. And the heat will continue to be on San Diego’s defense, which enters 30th in the NFL against the pass. The Saints protect Brees well, but he continues to be prone to getting passes deflected at the line of scrimmage and turnovers could play a major factor in what shapes up as a shootout.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers, whose career has long been intertwined with Brees’ since he warmed the bench for two years in San Diego behind Brees has yet to throw an interception this season but has been sacked six times. He’s already minus WR Keenan Allen and RB Danny Woodhead, with TE Antonio Gates also likely to miss his third consecutive game. The Saints’ defense has been hit equally as hard by injuries and Rivers should be able to exploit youth at several spots on the league’s 31st-ranked defense. New Orleans allowed 217 rushing yards last week, with Chargers RB Melvin Gordon looking to improve on his average of 3.6 yards per carry.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Chargers secondary vs. Saints receiving corps: Jason Verrett, San Diego’s top cover man, acknowledged struggling in last week’s loss to Indianapolis. Brandon Flowers, who also was beat several times, has yet to be cleared from a concussion. San Diego’s 30th-ranked pass defense will be under attack from the Saints’ deep receiving corps, led by speedy Brandin Cooks and emerging rookie Michael Thomas, who has a team-leading 17 catches.
–Chargers WR Travis Benjamin vs. Saints CB Ken Crawley: The Saints’ rookie who has been pressed into a starting job was rarely tested while covering Julio Jones on Monday night, but that’s primarily because Atlanta had so much success running the ball and spreading the passing game to a wealth of other receivers. Crawley will likely play a key role in keeping tabs on the speedy Benjamin.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chargers LB Jatavis Brown – The rookie steps into the lineup for the injured Manti Te’o, or at least that’s the plan. Brown was limited in practice midweek by a hamstring injury, although he’s expected to play.
FAST FACTS: Rivers is the first Chargers quarterback to go three games into a season without an interception since the team’s Super Bowl season of 1994. No San Diego quarterback has gone through the first four games without an interception.
PREDICTION: Who blinks first? New Orleans is third in the league in offense and should be able to move the ball up and down the field against a struggling secondary. But can New Orleans stop Philip Rivers? Even minus three of his top playmakers, Rivers has avoided interceptions and should be able to match Brees strike for strike against the Saints’ injury-ravaged defense. The Saints are more desperate for a victory … if only ever so slightly.
OUR PICK: Saints, 30-27.
Dallas Cowboys (2-1) at San Francisco 49ers (1-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews.
SERIES HISTORY: 35th meeting. San Francisco leads the series 17-16-1. Dallas has won three of the last four meetings. Dallas won the last meeting in San Francisco 27-24 in overtime in 2011. A Cowboys would win would give them three in a row for the first time since 2014 and have them 3-1 for the 22nd time in franchise history.
KEYS TO THE GAME: San Francisco was gouged for huge plays by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3 and a defense that looked like gangbusters in the season-opener is losing traction quickly. The bulldozing offensive line of the Cowboys helped RB Ezekiel Elliott to his first 100-yard game Sunday night against the Cowboys. The ball-control offense takes few shots down the field without play-action, but if rookie QB Dak Prescott gets good protection the 49ers’ secondary can be challenged over the top.
Critical to Prescott taking calculated chances is the health of top receiver Dez Bryant (knee), who had three catches for 40 yards last week and takes attention away from other receivers. Bryant has a hairline fracture, but the Cowboys claim he could play in a limited role.
Third down is becoming a major area of concern for the 49ers’ offense. QB Blaine Gabbert was only 14-of-25 passing for 119 yards and an interception at Seattle but repeated threw passes short of the sticks on third-and-long. With a solid offensive line — only two sacks allowed this season — Gabbert has more time to survey the field against a modest Dallas pass rush.
The Cowboys can zero in on running back Carlos Hyde, who scored twice but gained 67 of his 103 rushing yards last week with San Francisco trailing by 28 or more points. Hyde isn’t a big-play threat but has the power and short burst to chew up yards in chunks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliot vs. 49ers run defense: The 49ers are allowing 122.7 rushing yards per game (23rd). Elliott is tied for second in the league in rushing with 274 yards coming off his best game of the season Sunday night. He leads the league in first downs with 19. With Bryant hurt, the Cowboys are likely to skew conservative and keep the ball on the ground.
— 49ers RB Carlos Hyde vs. Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee: Hyde is the best weapon on the 49ers’ offense with 225 yards rushing and four touchdowns. San Francisco needs to get him going against a run defense giving up just 89.3 yards per game but 4.8 yards per rush. Lee leads the team in tackles with 32.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Cowboys WR Brice Butler – Acquired last season from the Raiders but slow to assimilate to the offense, Butler is expected to fill in for the injured Bryant in based offense. This time, Butler says he is more than ready for an increased role. “Dez is Dez. He is a monster,” Butler said. “But I feel like I can produce. I’m a big due. I got speed. I can catch the ball with my hands. I can get in and out of my routes. I’m ready.”
FAST FACTS: Without Romo and Bryant since 2014, the Cowboys are 0-6, averaging 17.2 points per game. … Cowboys WR Cole Beasley has 20 catches for 213 yards, putting him well on pace for career highs in catches (107) and yards (1,136).
PREDICTION: The Cowboys are 2-1 without starting QB Tony Romo because the offensive line and defensive line have been solid against mediocre competition. If Dallas stays above the level of its challenger the Cowboys can move to 3-1 with a difficult three-game stretch ahead — Bengals, Packers, Eagles.
OUR PICK: Cowboys, 28-17.
Kansas City Chiefs (2-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh. TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Chris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya.
SERIES HISTORY: 31st regular-season meeting between the teams that first met in 1970 with the merger of the AFL and NFL. The Chiefs trail in the series 10-20, but they have the most recent victory, topping Pittsburgh last season in Kansas City 23-13. The Chiefs have not won a game in Pittsburgh since the finale of the 1986 season, when they won 24-19 in a victory that sent K.C. to the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons. Since then they’ve lost the last five visits and overall the Chiefs are 4-10 playing in Pittsburgh, and they’ve never beaten the Steelers at Heinz Field. The teams met once in the playoffs, with Joe Montana leading the Chiefs to a 27-24 overtime victory at Arrowhead Stadium in the 1993 AFC playoffs.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers didn’t have an effective running game in their 34-3 loss to the Eagles last weekend and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey said they need a strong running game in order to be able to effectively throw the ball.
Le’Veon Bell may be big in both areas. He returns to the team after serving a three-game suspension. The Steelers could be without slot receiver Eli Rogers due to a turf toe injury so Bell’s elite pass receiving skills could become a major factor.
The Chiefs closed the 2015 regular season with a 10th consecutive victory at the hands of the Steelers, 23-10 at arrowhead. But that Pittsburgh team arrived in K.C. without an injured Ben Roethlisberger to direct the offense. The K.C. defense forced three turnovers against QB Landry Jones.
Still, the Chiefs gave up 121 yards to running back LeVeon Bell and wide receiver six catches for 124 yards to Antonio Brown. So holding the Steelers to one TD was amazing. Then and this time Big Ben is running the show.
The Chiefs offense will need to play at a more efficient level than last year when they scored twice, but settled for early field goals that kept the outcome in doubt until the fourth quarter.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Steelers receiver Antonio Brown vs. Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters. Brown is tied for the NFL lead with 24 receptions. He posted 100-yard receiving games in two of his first three outings. Peters leads the league with four interceptions. Brown has mostly thrived in one-on-one matchups with other star cornerbacks around the league.
–Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison vs. Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher. Fisher got paid this summer, but it wasn’t for his work against Harrison, who recorded 1 1/2 sacks against Fisher in a 2014 meeting against the Steelers at Heinz Field. The Steelers need to start generating a pass rush and Harrison will be looking forward to a matchup against a player he’s owned in the past.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Last Sunday, Kelce finally found the end zone, catching a 12-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith, the only offensive score of the game for the Chiefs. He also posted his longest play of the season, a 42-yard catch and run in the second half. Kelce leads K.C. with 17 catches for 197 yards. Those are disappointing numbers for Kelce and the Chiefs offense, because so much is expected from him. “There are some things he needs to take care of,” said head coach Andy Reid. “There’s always room to improve.”
FAST FACTS: Chiefs QB Alex Smith won 12 of past 13 starts. Chiefs defense has allowed one touchdown in the last 32 opponents’ possessions. . . Then Steelers are 22-13 with Bell in the lineup since his 2013 rookie season. WR Sammie Coates is averaging 29 yards per catch (7 catches, 203 yards), best in NFL.
PREDICTION: This should be a prime time punch-out between excellent AFC teams and coaches that might even give a boost to the sagging TV ratings. Steelers should benefit with return of Bell to add go-power both running and receiving, giving Big Ben the ability to balance his offense.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 28-24.
Monday Night Football:
New York Giants (2-1) at Minnesota Vikings (3-0)
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis. TV: ESPN, Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters.
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 14-10. The last four games between these two teams have resulted in a lopsided win for the victor, with the margin of victory in each being at least two touchdowns. The Vikings have won five out of the last seven meetings and the Giants have not won in Minnesota since 2010.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Injuries chewed up the Giants’ depth chart at running back the past two weeks, losing Rashad Jennings (thumb) and Shane Vereen (triceps) in a two-game span. Jennings could come back, but Orleans Darkwa is expected to get more time as the Giants seek balance against a nasty Vikings’ defense that clobbered Cam Newton in Carolina last week.
Eli Manning felt the burden of carrying the offense in Week 3, when his pair of fourth-quarter picks by the Redskins cost the Giants a share of first place in the NFC East. New York’s offensive line was effective but has shaky moments against teams that can rush from multiple angles, a specialty of Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer. Health in the secondary was a concern for the Vikings with CB Xavier Rhodes ailing, but Minnesota shut down Kelvin Benjamin with a focused, physical game plan in Week 3. The Vikings lead the NFL with 15 sacks.
How the Vikings match up against the Giants’ three-receiver formation will impact the way head coach Ben McAdoo attacks, but he’s likely to go conservative out of the gate in a primetime game on enemy turf.
Sam Bradford is doing just fine, thank you, minus left tackle Ryan Kalil (hip) and running back Adrian Peterson (knee) thanks to undersized WR Stefon Diggs. The Redskins were able to dent the Giants running between the tackles, and short-yardage RB Matt Asiata could take more carries from stand-in starter Jerick McKinnon this week if the Vikings want to show a power game.
Bradford has been sacked six times in two games, and Minnesota might need an extra tight end on the field to hold up against the Giants’ reloaded pass rush. With CBs Eli Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hurt last week, the Giants played a lot of soft zone — just what Diggs would prefer — behind a four-man rush.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
— Giants DE Olivier Vernon vs. Vikings LT T.J. Clemmings: Clemmings is a right tackle by trade and moved to the left side when Kalil went down. Vernon was able to get pressure on Kirk Cousins last week but has one sack in three games. This matchup favors Vernon, but the Vikings operate in multiple-tight end formations to protect the edge.
— Giants WR Sterling Shepard vs. Vikings CB Captain Munnerlyn. Shepard is excelling in the slot, but at some point, defenses are going to change the way they cover him. This could be the week. Munnerlyn finished second on the Vikings last week with nine tackles and doesn’t give up much after the catch.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Giants RB Orleans Darkwa — With Shane Vereen on injured reserve (triceps) and starter Rashad Jennings (thumb) still not a given for next week, Darkwa is going to finally get an opportunity to see an expanded role. What better test to see if the man currently averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season is indeed for real than against a Vikings run defense that is allowing opponents an average of 84.0 yards per game, seventh in the league? If the Giants can get the running game going consistently, the hope is that they’ll finally be able to deploy more play-action and take more deep shots down the field.
FAST FACTS: Manning needs one victory to reach 100 career regular-season wins. … The Giants are one win shy of 700. … The Vikings have won five of the past seven meetings. … The Giants are first in the NFL with a plus-eight turnover margin. The Giants are minus-6. … Beckham caught his 200th career pass last week, reaching the mark in an all-time record 30 games.
PREDICTION: The Giants have to take care of the ball to avoid being stormed under at new U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings return as a confident team despite a deluge of injuries to key players. If Minnesota safeguards Sam Bradford, the Vikings jump to a a surprising 4-0 start.
OUR PICK: Vikings, 24-20.