OAK (1-6) @ SF (1-7) | THU 8:20 PM ET | FOX/NFL Network/Amazon
At the start of the season, this Thursday Night Football matchup looked like it could be between a couple playoff hopefuls in the Bay Area, but the Raiders and 49ers have combined for just two wins in 2018, and now some fans are looking towards their position in next year’s draft more than anything else. Jon Gruden and Kyle Shanahan aren’t thinking about that, though, and despite their team’s respective records, we should see a competitive game to kick off Week 9, even with C.J. Beathard (wrist) likely serving as the backup for San Francisco. The last time we saw Beathard in primetime, the second-year quarterback nearly led an upset victory at Lambeau Field; I think his toughness—even with Nick Mullens set to start—combined with the same from health-regenerating runner Matt Breida should help establish the culture needed to turn things around under the regime led by Shanahan and John Lynch. It’ll be interesting to see how Breida fares on a short week with an ankle injury, but Oakland has allowed the most rushing yards per game (144.7) and were just torched by Indianapolis for 224 yards on the ground. Overall, the Raiders are a lot healthier than the Niners—who will be without at least Reuben Foster (hamstring) and Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder)—and Derek Carr should be able to lead his guys to a victory as surprising road underdogs.
Winner: Oakland Raiders
CHI (4-3) @ BUF (2-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The result probably would have been the same, but I wish we could have seen Josh Allen (elbow) under center on Monday night when the Patriots came to town, as Buffalo was in the game throughout thanks to unforgiving defense, and the rookie might have been able to make some off-script plays against a linebacker group that lacked speed with Dont’a Hightower (knee) inactive. Through eight weeks, the Bills are allowing 25.0 points per game, but the defense—which is No. 6 in both total yards per game and passing yards per game allowed—has played much better than that, which makes them a real threat to upset an opponent on any given Sunday. Opposing them this week, Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears have somewhat quietly averaged 32.8 points per game over their past four outings, but Sean McDermott’s defense will be the best they’ve faced since Week 2. I’m anticipating a slugfest, so last week was the perfect time to get Jordan Howard (22 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown) rolling as the temperature begins to drop, and the formula should remain the same against a stout secondary that can bait a young quarterback into a bad decision. I think this game should be closer than people might expect, but I trust Trubisky a lot more than Nathan Peterman, who unfortunately just hasn’t been able to translate preseason success into regular season results.
Winner: Chicago Bears
TB (3-4) @ CAR (5-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
I think the missed internal evaluation of Jameis Winston in the offseason could be what ends up costing head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht their jobs, as they had an opportunity to cut ties with the former No. 1 overall pick in June following his suspension for alleged sexual assault, but decided to stick with him as the franchise quarterback. It only took three-and-a-half games for Winston to toss ten interceptions and get benched, so it’s now up to Ryan Fitzpatrick to save the season. The magic of the Harvard product has been real in Todd Monken’s offense, but he’s notorious for making some of the same morale-draining mistakes that Jameis does. It hasn’t happened this year yet, so perhaps all the weapons combined with an excellent tackle duo (Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson) will allow Fitzpatrick to stay hot for a winnable month of November (@ CAR, v WAS, @ NYG, v SF). This week in particular, I think Tampa Bay has the offensive firepower to knock out the Panthers in a shootout, but stopping a confident Cam Newton will be easier said than done for the Bucs’ 32nd-ranked scoring defense (33.3 points per game allowed). Plus, besides having to deal with Newton, the defense has been dominated by receiving backs Alvin Kamara (9/112/1) and Tarik Cohen (7/121/1) so far this year, setting up nicely for a huge day by Christian McCaffrey. I’m going with Carolina in a game that could approach the 30s or 40s.
Winner: Carolina Panthers
KC (7-1) @ CLE (2-5-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Browns finally fired head coach Hue Jackson after a 3-36-1 record over 40 games, but it was surprising that they also got rid of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who seemed to be the logical choice as Jackson’s replacement. Instead, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been given the interim tag for the remainder of the season, and if nothing else, his reign will definitely be entertaining. However, new OC and play-caller Freddie Kitchens will be the more important figure for the future of the franchise, as Baker Mayfield needs to be coached up after regressing in recent weeks. The first order of business should be to limit the number of pass attempts for the rookie (40 per game through five career starts), and the team is built to run the ball anyway with an elite interior offensive line—left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, right guard Kevin Zeitler—leading the way for second-round pick Nick Chubb. The Browns defeating Kansas City would be the upset of the year, but if they’re going to do it, it will be by feeding Chubb against the worst run defense in the league in terms of yards per carry allowed (5.4), and anyone who has watched the Chiefs this year shouldn’t be surprised, as their weakness is clearly tackling. Defensively, Cleveland will have to disguise coverages and make sure they pursue—but don’t over-pursue—when the ball gets into the hands of one of Patrick Mahomes’ explosive playmakers. Anything can happen, but I don’t see a 1-0 start under Williams.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
NYJ (3-5) @ MIA (4-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
In the first meeting between the Jets and Dolphins this season, Miami got out to a 20-0 lead at the half, but the Jets slowly climbed back and made it a game with a touchdown and two field goals to pull within 20-12. New York couldn’t get the ball back with six minutes to go, though, as a 12-play drive by the Dolphins—which included a third-and-19 conversion followed by an eight-yard run by Ryan Tannehill to seal things—allowed Adam Gase’s squad to keep Sam Darnold off the field. But since their 3-0 start, Miami has fallen apart on defense with 33.4 points per game allowed, with the worst of it coming last Thursday night when Deshaun Watson torched them for 239 yards and five touchdowns on just 20 attempts. New York’s rookie passer doesn’t have the weaponry to takeover a game like Watson can in Houston, but I liked the connection between Darnold and USC teammate Deontay Burnett (4/61) last week, and second-year runner Elijah McGuire (foot) will hopefully make his season debut on Sunday to boost the struggling rushing attack. Plus, the Jets sound like the more desperate team after cornerback Morris Claiborne called the game “a must win,” and Todd Bowles’ defense actually did a nice job containing Chicago’s offense last week outside of a 70-yard screen pass on which Tarik Cohen basically was unaccounted for. They need to contain Kenyan Drake and DeVante Parker as the two most dangerous options on Miami’s offense, but I like New York in a toss up.
Winner: New York Jets
PIT (4-2-1) @ BAL (4-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
AFC North battles are always unpredictable, but while the Steelers are hitting their stride behind James Conner, the Ravens are coming off a couple bad losses for different reasons (a heartbreaking last-minute PAT miss by Justin Tucker against the Saints and a noncompetitive defeat in Carolina). Baltimore already beat Pittsburgh this year, but that came on a night where Ben Roethlisberger threw it nearly 50 times, and the offense has since committed to feeding their resilient feature back, who has gone for 110+ rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in each of the past three games. I would be shocked if Conner doesn’t handle more than the 12 touches he got in the first matchup, so look for quite a bit of heavy (three tight ends) personnel to set the tone and potentially knock Baltimore out of the division race. Of course, it’s not going to be easy, and the Ravens have the talent on offense to win a shootout if need be. I’m interested to see if Ty Montgomery becomes an immediate factor after being acquired from Green Bay, as I’ve always liked his pure ability as a runner with natural vision and patience. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg could really get creative considering all the versatile pieces Baltimore now has, but I think the Steelers—despite a 3-6 record for Big Ben at M&T Bank Stadium—are going to come out on top, which would really put the pressure on John Harbaugh down the stretch.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
DET (3-4) @ MIN (4-3-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
November is a huge month for the Vikings with a trip around the division (v DET, @ CHI, v GB) before taking on the Patriots to start December, so I think now is their time to make a move in the NFC North and NFC playoff race in general. Kirk Cousins is on pace for over 5,000 passing yards and a 32:8 touchdown-interception ratio at the midway point of his first season in Minnesota, but I’m sure the team expected they would have more than four wins, and they are 0-2 against opponents with a winning record as things currently stand. There seems to be a discrepancy about how people view Cousins (top-five, top-ten, league-average) as a quarterback, and I never thought he was a significant upgrade over Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, or Case Keenum. That said, he’s not playing bad by any means, and Cousins deserves more than half a season in a new system to prove he was worth every penny of his three-year, $84-million contract, especially if the Vikings win in January. This week, the Lions are coming off a 28-14 home loss to the Seahawks, and they will be without offensive catalyst Golden Tate after the dynamic receiver was traded to the Eagles for a 2019 third-round pick, which was probably deemed to good a value to pass up due to Tate being in the final year of his deal. Matthew Stafford has performed well against Mike Zimmer’s defense, but who knows how he will play without his security blanket, and Xavier Rhodes (ankle) should return to give fits to Marvin Jones and/or Kenny Golladay.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings
ATL (3-4) @ WAS (5-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Defensive injuries and a 1-4 start caused people to write off the Falcons, but I thought they remained a legitimate threat in the NFC as the only team in the conference to make the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. Atlanta had a bye to prepare for this week’s matchup in Washington, and then they’ll face Cleveland on the road before taking on the Cowboys back at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. If they extend their winning streak to five games, it would set up an awesome clash with the rival Saints on Thanksgiving Night. First, the Falcons need to stop Adrian Peterson and find a way to put up points against the league’s most underrated defense and overlooked team. The Redskins made what I believe to be the best move at the trade deadline by somehow getting All-Pro safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from the Packers for a fourth-round pick, and they now have an intimidating, playmaking duo with the Alabama product teaming up with D.J. Swearinger on the backend; the two have combined to average an interception per game between them this season, so we’ll see if they can keep it up against Matt Ryan, who has thrown just two picks this year as he puts up numbers similar to his 2016 NFL MVP season. I still think Washington is the favorite in the NFC East, but Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu might be able to expose a cornerback group that looks like the weakness for a defense that ranks in the top five for yards per game and points per game allowed.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
HOU (5-3) @ DEN (3-5) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
I think every team that made a move at the trade deadline convinced themselves that an in-house replacement wouldn’t force them to take a step back in 2018, but the Broncos might be the only team I believe with Courtland Sutton replacing Demaryius Thomas. The second-round pick out of SMU has been more impressive than I anticipated this early in his career, as he’s averaging 19.1 yards per reception and looks more than ready to take on a full-time role across from Emmanuel Sanders the rest of the way. I’m also excited to see fourth-rounder DaeSean Hamilton in the slot, but he probably won’t be back until after the Week 10 bye as he deals with a knee injury. Against the Texans, Sutton will likely be a key part of the offensive game plan to attack their short, banged-up cornerback group, so look for the rookie to get targeted a bunch on intermediate routes, which I thought played to his strengths coming out of college. On Houston’s side of the trade, I’m not sure how Thomas will mesh with an offense that might have been better off acquiring another deep threat after losing Will Fuller (knee) for the season, but perhaps they are planning to give rookie Keke Coutee more run on the perimeter. Either way, I think the only two advantages for Denver this weekend is home-field advantage and the star pass-rush duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, but that might be enough to end Houston’s winning streak because of issues on the offensive line.
Winner: Denver Broncos
LAC (5-2) @ SEA (4-3) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
Some analysts thought Seattle would be one of the worst teams in the league following the disbanding of the Legion of Boom, but that was probably out of adoration for the outspoken members—Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, and holdout/last-man-standing Earl Thomas—more than it was an honest evaluation of the roster. Importantly, the Seahawks have the quarterback and head coach in place to compete, and the culture that was muddied when some guys became household names is returning back to what it was always meant to be with a new group of hungry players making a name for themselves. The fact that first-round pick Rashaad Penny played zero offensive snaps in Week 8 shows that everything needs to be earned in Seattle, which isn’t always the case when it comes to sports or life. Carroll’s determined squad actually comes into this weekend as favorites for the first home game since owner Paul Allen’s death, but this year feels different for the Chargers, who should be well-rested after their down-to-the-wire win in London followed by a week to recharge for the final nine games of the regular season. For what it’s worth, Rivers was great in his last matchup against the Seahawks with 284 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions in a 30-21 victory.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
LAR (8-0) @ NO (6-1) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Could this be an NFC Championship Game preview? The Rams would technically keep a half-game lead in the conference with a loss, but Sunday’s game is a de facto first-place battle that might decide home-field advantage in January, which I think is bigger for Drew Brees at the Superdome than it is Jared Goff in front of the fair-weather Los Angeles fans. These teams have actually played in each of the past two seasons, and Goff’s been great, throwing for three touchdowns to Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, and Lance Kendricks in the first half of a 2016 loss, and he then played ahead in a 26-20 win last year, but still finished with 354 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. I think the young signal-caller simply feels comfortable against New Orleans’ predominantly man-to-man coverage, so Sean McVay’s attack will be difficult to stop with Cooper Kupp (knee) returning to the lineup. And unlike last season, the Saints have struggled to defend the pass, ranking towards the bottom of the league in passing yards per game allowed (300.0), yards per attempt allowed (8.7), and opposing touchdown-interception ratio (15:3). I expect nothing less than a full-fledged shootout, and the wildcard will probably be Taysom Hill and his ability to keep the defense honest so Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram can get past Aaron Donald to attack the second level. I’m taking the undefeated road underdog.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
GB (3-3-1) @ NE (6-2) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
We will hear enough about the greatest of all-time debate on Sunday night, but fans should simply enjoy Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers sharing the field together while they can. Besides the quarterback position, Packers-Patriots will be a chess match between two Super Bowl hopefuls, and I’m curious to see how Jaire Alexander—who everyone suddenly knows after the job he did against Brandin Cooks last week—will be used, as he was dominant on the outside in Week 9, but might profile better against Julian Edelman than Josh Gordon on Sunday night. No matter who he covers or where he lines up, Brady will need to be cognizant of the rookie, who I thought was a top-ten prospect partly due to his ability to show up in big games. Because Green Bay traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, whoever Alexander isn’tdefending out of Edelman and Gordon might be set up for a big night, but more concerning will be the single coverage on Rob Gronkowski, as the cyborg tight end is in the midst of a career-long touchdown drought that could be snapped with a two- or three-score performance. On the other side of the ball, Davante Adams will likely see Stephon Gilmore’s shadow, and I hope for the Packers’ sake that Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison are featured in a crucial game. I don’t see Brady, at home, losing what could be his only chance to pickup a win against his fellow No. 12. (Rodgers was out for the first matchup and won the second matchup at Lambeau Field, 26-21.)
Winner: New England Patriots
TEN (3-4) @ DAL (3-4) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
If you don’t like defensive games where every possession and every play matters, then Monday Night Football might not be for you this week. I’ve enjoyed the low-scoring affairs we’ve seen this year and wish we had more of it in today’s NFL, and Titans-Cowboys should bring it to close out the week. So far this season, Tennessee has allowed 18.1 points per game (No. 3 in the league), and Dallas has allowed 17.6 points per game (No. 2 in the league), so this matchup could come down to whichever dual-threat quarterback makes a play late. I think the Titans have the personnel to control the line of scrimmage, but they’ve declined to feature Derrick Henry (12.0 carries per game), which I think has been a mistake, and it will be a mistake again against a defense that’s been great this year, but was run on by Chris Carson and Adrian Peterson. For the Dallas offense, Amari Cooper should have an immediate role, so Mike Vrabel needs to stabilize his secondary, which has been vulnerable to the deep ball through seven games. We might see Marcus Mariota breakout as he sheds the half-glove on his throwing hand, but I’m taking the Cowboys to improve to 4-0 at home because I have more faith in them establishing the run on early downs with Ezekiel Elliott.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
Last week: 7-7 /// Overall: 55-66
Recommended picks last week: 3-2 /// Overall: 25-15
Raiders (+3) @ 49ers
Bears @ Bills (+8.5)
Buccaneers @ Panthers (-6.5)
Chiefs (-8.5) @ Browns
Jets (+3) @ Dolphins
Steelers (+3) @ Ravens
Lions @ Vikings (-5.5)
Falcons (+1.5) @ Redskins
Texans @ Broncos (+1)
Chargers (+1.5) @ Seahawks
Rams (+1.5) @ Saints
Packers @ Patriots (-5.5)
Titans (+6.5) @ Cowboys
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