JAX (0-3) @ CIN (2-1) | THU 8:20 PM ET | NFL Network
The final NFL game of September features a battle between the last two No. 1 overall picks, as Trevor Lawrence tries to get a victory against Joe Burrow and the ascending Bengals. Jacksonville did a surprisingly good job containing Kyler Murray in Week 3, but now they have to try to slow down star runner Joe Mixon—averaging 24.3 touches per game—on a short week, and even without Tee Higgins (shoulder), Cincinnati has more than enough firepower with Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd at wide receiver. Offensively, the Jags might get some added downfield opportunities due to the absence of standout safety Jessie Bates III (neck) for the Bengals, and it’s worth noting that D.J. Chark caught eight passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s matchup. I’d also like to see James Robinson continue to be featured, but too much might need to come together on both sides of the ball for Lawrence to get revenge in a College Football Playoff rematch versus Burrow.
Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
TEN (2-1) @ NYJ (0-3) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Giants being 0-3 has seemed to draw criticism away from the Jets like Batman drawing the cops off Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, but I’d argue—knowing they are only three games into the Robert Saleh era—the New York team in the AFC is in a more concerning spot. This is the third year on the job for Joe Douglas, and the Jets have a discontented star safety in Marcus Maye (ankle) that is now out for three-to-four weeks (just in time to be healthy for the trade deadline), a combined nine receptions this season from their second-round wideouts from the past two drafts, and the worst point differential in football (-50) through three weeks. Tennessee could potentially be without both A.J. Brown (hamstring) and Julio Jones (leg) this week, so New York’s fight in slowing down Derrick Henry will be a good measuring stick to gauge their progress. Zach Wilson needs to be wary of Kevin Byard lurking on the backend.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
KC (1-2) @ PHI (1-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The honeymoon period for new Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni lasted one week, and it’s very fair to question the game plan from Monday night’s slanted loss against Dallas—which put everything on Jalen Hurts’ shoulders with two rushing attempts for the running backs in the first half; then after saying at the half that they need to establish the run, the first carry for a running back came with less than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. Fortunately, Kansas City’s run defense provides a get-right spot if Sirianni commits to the ground game, and Hurts should find more opportunities to create for himself without Micah Parsons tracking him. The Chiefs, on the other hand, are completely fine on offense, and the eventual inclusion of Josh Gordon will only make it tougher on opponents to contain Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce without getting burnt. Plus, Clyde Edwards-Helaire looked better than ever in Week 3, and Philly could be in trouble without Brandon Graham (Achilles) if last week was any indication.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
CAR (3-0) @ DAL (2-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Panthers are rolling so far this year, but so is Dallas, and they are a Tom Brady drive away from being 3-0 behind a balanced offensive attack, added aggressiveness on defense, and the poise/leadership of Dak Prescott. Overall, the Cowboys’ star power can match almost any team in the league, and the group is frankly in a different class than the rest of the NFC East. Carolina also brings quality balance on offense to pair with a very fast defense, but Christian McCaffrey (hamstring) won’t play this week, and rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn (foot) is a significant loss—so the secondary will count on fellow top-ten pick C.J. Henderson to immediately step up after being acquired in a trade from Jacksonville. The confidence of Sam Darnold should be high (and he’s beaten the Cowboys in a close game before), but Trevon Diggs might be able to jump a route on Sunday, and the Panthers not having their best player (McCaffrey) will be difficult to overcome on the road.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
NYG (0-3) @ NO (2-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Just when Saquon Barkley breaks out with a big game and Evan Engram returns for New York, both Sterling Shepard (hamstring) and Darius Slayton (hamstring) went down, so Daniel Jones is still trying to get an opportunity with a fully healthy supporting cast around him. I had defended general manager Dave Gettleman and the Giants for a while, but some of the moves over the past year or so—the most recent example being signing troubled tackle Isaiah Wilson to the practice squad—seem to have strayed from what they were trying to build towards. An opportunistic defense for New Orleans could lead to a new low for a team I had high hopes about entering 2021, and turnover-free football from Jones is likely to end this weekend in a noisy environment at the Superdome. Taking care of business against New York and Washington ahead of a Week 6 bye is key for the Saints to build momentum into matchups versus Seattle and Tampa Bay.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
CLE (2-1) @ MIN (1-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
It’s only been three weeks, but Nick Chubb is quietly having another excellent season with 83+ rushing yards in every outing (along with 5.5 yards per carry), and I don’t think Cleveland will make the same mistake Seattle did against the Vikings by going away from the running game. So far, reinforcements added by Minnesota to be stingier up front haven’t worked out (Joe Mixon and Chris Carson have already had big games against them), which could lead to a full-blown breakout for Chubb, and Kareem Hunt will of course be involved, too. Furthermore, Odell Beckham Jr. returning to the lineup adds explosiveness on the outside for Kevin Stefanski’s offense, and I’m assuming the Browns’ head coach will have a pretty strong read of what his former boss Mike Zimmer is trying to do defensively. If Cleveland jumps out to an early lead, the promising play of Kirk Cousins and the offense could be halted due to pass protection not holding up.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
DET (0-3) @ CHI (1-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
It may or may not have to do with wanting Allen Robinson to put up numbers for my fantasy team, but I think Nick Foles is the best option at quarterback for Chicago, and there is too much skill-position talent—David Montgomery, Robinson, Darnell Mooney, Cole Kmet—for them to be as bad as they were in Week 3. It’s honestly unfair to Justin Fields that he was crowned by the media (all of whom are trying to get views, retweets, and likes rather than providing actual analysis) based on a few preseason highlights, and now his confidence is likely drained for whenever he makes his next start because he was thrown in without being ready. The Lions are enduring pain for a different reason (Justin Tucker), but they’ve fought for three weeks in a row, and Dan Campbell at least has the franchise headed in the right direction. That said, Roquan Smith and the defense can lead the way with just a bit of help from the offense, and I’m narrowly giving the edge to the home team at a rainy Soldier Field.
Winner: Chicago Bears
HOU (1-2) @ BUF (2-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
I have no idea how the NFL is overlooking the entire Deshaun Watson situation, but it’s sounding increasingly likely that he could get traded and play this season based on Jay Glazer’s recent scoop, and the league might spin it into something like, “well, he was basically suspended by Houston this year” because they want to keep one of the bright on-field stars around. The situation is only being brought up because Josh Allen is surely looking for revenge from the playoff loss a couple of years ago, but he’ll have to settle for the current version of the Texans with Davis Mills at quarterback. It’s crazy that Buffalo’s offense has put up 39.0 points per game over the past two weeks with Stefon Diggs being mostly contained, so the ceiling hasn’t even been hit for Brian Daboll’s attack. They’ll try to hone things this weekend before road primetime games versus Kansas City and Tennessee starting next Sunday night.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
IND (0-3) @ MIA (1-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Fantasy football players know all about it, but the Colts haven’t been criticized enough for failing to feature Jonathan Taylor through three weeks, and although the schedule has been difficult, there is simply no excuse for a superstar-caliber runner to be given ten carries in a game that was never out of reach last week in Tennessee. Whether or not Quenton Nelson (ankle) and Braden Smith (foot) are there on the offensive line, Taylor needs at least 20-25 touches against a Miami defense that allowed a career day to Peyton Barber in Week 3. On the other side of the ball, Jacoby Brissett will take on a team he knows well, and I was very encouraged by the veteran passer peppering Mike Gesicki with targets to push the Raiders to overtime last week; also, Jaylen Waddle getting a bunch of underneath touches is a positive in terms of his usage. Slight lean towards the more desperate team as the Colts try to avoid 0-4, but I’ll probably regret going against the better coach in Brian Flores.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
WAS (1-2) @ ATL (1-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
— Alison Mastrangelo (@AlisonWSB) September 29, 2021
I changed my pick to the Falcons after seeing that.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
SEA (1-2) @ SF (2-1) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | FOX
Headlining matchups on Sunday night and Monday night—along with three other promising games for the late slate—has Seahawks-49ers getting lost some, but if history is any indication, it should be a down-to-the-wire battle. The formula for both offenses should be the same against defenses that have struggled to stop the run, and Seattle in particular not sticking with Chris Carson after 74 rushing yards in the first half versus Minnesota (to be fair, he left the game briefly with a leg injury) is a big reason they sit at 1-2 instead of 2-1. For the Niners, Kyle Shanahan has to unleash third-round pick Trey Sermon with some downhill, under-center runs similar to what Alexander Mattison had success doing last week—and the screen game was also extremely effective. I expect another steady showing from Jimmy Garoppolo, but right now, I have more trust in the Seahawks getting back to basics, and Russell Wilson is 14-4 against the Niners for his career.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
ARI (3-0) @ LAR (3-0) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | FOX
The winner of Cardinals-Rams could realistically be the final remaining unbeaten team in the league by the end of Week 4 depending on results around the league, and the intensity will be high for what is sure to be a wild season in the NFC West. I don’t think they are suddenly Super Bowl favorites, but Los Angeles proved themselves in a win over Tampa Bay, and the Cardinals are still mystery that may sink or swim as divisional play gets under way (@ LAR, v SF) followed by a road trip to Cleveland. Through two seasons, Kyler Murray is 0-4 against the Rams, and they’ve gotten to him for basically twice as many sack yardage (91) as they’ve allowed rushing yards (46)—but perhaps A.J. Green, Rondale Moore, and the emergence of Christian Kirk will help push Arizona over the edge. On the road, though, LA might be too confident to takedown, and offensive balance will only help them as the weeks pass.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
PIT (1-2) @ GB (2-1) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
October is a make-or-break month for the Steelers (@ GB, v DEN, v SEA, @ CLE), but dating back to last season (including playoffs), they are 2-7 following an 11-0 start in 2020, and it’s not really clear what can be done to reverse their fortunes. Based on what the Packers showed on Sunday night and Ben Roethlisberger has showed this season, I’d expect Green Bay will crowd the line of scrimmage to make Pittsburgh connect on deep passes—which they haven’t had success doing. We’ll see if Big Ben tries to avoid Jaire Alexander by targeting the bigger cornerbacks in Kevin King (if active) and rookie Eric Stokes, especially with Diontae Johnson (knee) appearing likely to return. In regards to stopping Aaron Rodgers in the first matchup against him since Super Bowl XLV, it remains a pick-your-poison between Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, so it’s important to create pressure up front and chaos on the backend… Easier said than done.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
BAL (2-1) @ DEN (3-0) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
He played around half of the team’s offensive snaps for the third game in a row, but Ty’Son Williams handling just five touches last week in a close win over Detroit—following yardage totals of 94 and 93 to begin the season—was a head-scratching move, and the Ravens can’t forget who they are at their core by straying too far from the running game. Now, the Broncos will make that a challenge with 3.6 yards per carry and 59.3 rushing yards per game allowed this season, but Lamar Jackson and Greg Roman’s ground attack will be a different kind of opponent, so it should be one of the week’s best matchups. On defense, the Ravens will be facing a receiving core that won’t have Jerry Jeudy (ankle) or K.J. Hamler (knee), which should make it easier to try to eliminate Noah Fant like they did T.J. Hockenson last week against the Lions. Teddy Bridgewater efficiently steering the ship makes Denver a formidable out, but Baltimore should be ready after their escape in Week 3.
Winner: Baltimore Ravens
TB (2-1) @ NE (1-2) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
We don’t know how Tom Brady’s historic return to New England will play out in terms of the final score, but it will almost certainly be a record-breaking night for the GOAT as he passes Drew Brees on the all-time passing yardage list, and even typing this right now, I have goosebumps thinking about the game as a whole—which feels like a Super Bowl in terms of the anticipation. The legendary status of Brady, Bill Belichick, and their relationship will be talked about enough this week and through Sunday night, so I’ll keep it on the field by wondering who might have the advantage between the two. While the genius of Belichick shouldn’t be counted out, I think Brady—actually being between the lines and having complete control with all that he’s seen/learned over the years (including from his former head coach)—should have the upper hand. I almost want the Patriots to win if only to keep TB12 around for at least another four years (you don’t think he’d want a rematch?), but whether it’s an early knockout or 15-round decision, I’m anticipating a victory for Brady and the Bucs.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
LV (3-0) @ LAC (2-1) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
I said in last week’s game picks that Mike Williams being featured was “the best indication that head coach Brandon Staley knows what he’s doing in his first year on the job,” and that’s no longer a secret after his bold decision to keep the ball in Justin Herbert’s hands to convert a fourth-and-10 essentially won the game against Kansas City (also, I love that the Chargers flat-out threw the ball to score a touchdown rather than being worried about leaving time on the clock for Patrick Mahomes). The main concern about Los Angeles is their run defense, and Josh Jacobs (ankle) being likely to return will test them there—particularly since Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards have proven they can make opponents pay if they stack the box or send too many resources to stop Darren Waller. As has been the case a couple of times already for Derek Carr and the Raiders, it might come down to whoever can make a big throw late, but they might fall on the wrong side of that this time around with Herbert-to-Williams again connecting late.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers