Week 7 may have gotten off to a slow start with the Seahawks’ throttling of the 49ers in Santa Clara, but an enticing football marathon awaits on Sunday, starting with the groundbreaking online-only telecast of the Bills–Jaguars game in London, through key divisional clashes in the AFC East, NFC East and AFC West and culminating with a measuring stick test for the Eagles and Panthers in primetime. Storylines abound as the targets get bigger on the back of the league’s unbeaten teams and the desperation factor is ratcheted up for sub-.500 clubs staring down a long homestretch if they can’t turn around their seasons soon.
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 7 and offer their viewing recommendations for your Sunday and Monday, along with numbers to know, matchups to watch around the league and, most importantly, a Tecmo Bowl prediction.
Jets at Patriots (1 p.m., CBS)
That game, a 49–19 Patriots romp, has been the exception rather than the norm in recent history. The five other Patriots–Jets matchups since 2012 have been decided by three points or fewer, with two going to overtime. New England holds a 5–1 mark against the Jets during that stretch (and 7–1 dating back to 2011), but these clashes tend to go down to the wire.
Of course, things are much different in New York than they were last season, and the Jets are far removed from the group that witnessed Sanchez’s holiday mishap. Coach Todd Bowles is off to a 4–1 start, matching Rex Ryan’s win total last season in his final go-round with the franchise.
Bowles is doing it with defense, first and foremost. The Jets rank first in points allowed, first in yards allowed, and No. 2 against both the pass and run. New England will counter with an offense averaging a league-best 36.6 points per game.
“Everything [the Jets] are doing has been very impressive,” Bill Belichick said on a conference call this week, via NJ.com.
The Jets feature a fearsome defensive front, including Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson. Bowles complements it by dialing up frequent blitzes—a challenge for a young New England line that recently lost Nate Solder for the season.
New York’s strength in the trenches could mean more Dion Lewis (if he is close to 100%) rather than the between-the-tackles stylings of LeGarrette Blount in the New England backfield. How the Jets choose to cover Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman will go a long way in deciding the outcome, as is usually the case for any team playing New England. If Buster Skrine returns from a concussion, count on him to draw Edelman often.
The Jets also can move the ball through the air, with Ryan Fitzpatrick (nine TDs, seven INTs) and a talented group of pass catchers, but they would prefer to flex their muscles on the ground. That means plenty of touches for Chris Ivory, who is coming off back-to-back games of 146 and 166 yards, respectively.
One thing is for sure: Neither team needs any extra motivation to get up for Sunday. Maybe that's why, after an hour or two, the Patriots deleted their tweet. —CB
Eagles at Panthers (8:30 p.m., NBC)
The Eagles looked a lot better in last Monday’s 27–7 win over the Giants. Chip Kelly finally realized that DeMarco Murray is a better north-south runner than anything else, and Murray responded with 112 rushing yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Philly’s defense, which had been trending up for a while, shut Eli Manning down, intercepting him twice and allowing the Giants just 247 total yards.
The only lingering issue is Sam Bradford's accuracy, especially with the deep ball. Bradford completed 24 of 38 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw three picks, and several of his incompletions could have been intercepted, as well. He’s thrown five picks in his last two games, and the Carolina pass defense is stout enough to give quarterbacks problems even when they’re on their game. Cornerback Josh Norman has played at an All-Pro level, allowing just 17 catches on 37 targets for 127 yards, one touchdown, four picks and a ridiculous 24.1 opponent passer rating.
The Panthers are riding high after last Sunday’s comeback win over the Seahawks, and any team heading into their stadium right now had better prepare for one of the league's more powerful and efficient teams.
The Giants turned the Eagles’ four turnovers into zero points, but you can’t expect the Panthers to be as forgiving. They’re getting their run game going, and Cam Newton is finding second-tier receivers just as consistently as he’s hitting tight end Greg Olsen all the time.
The key to an Eagles upset will be defensive coordinator Bill Davis’s ability to do what he did to Manning in flipping his coverage looks (Philly had as many as five cornerbacks in the game at the same time versus Big Blue) and relying on a front seven that has the potential to dominate any offensive line. Newton is still a great runner, so perhaps spying him with multi-gap linebacker Connor Barwin could present a key matchup. —DF
Saints at Colts (1 p.m., FOX)
By virtue of wins over the Cowboys and Falcons, New Orleans finally has found some footing again at home. Now it can work on finding a little road magic again. The Saints closed last season winners of four straight road games but are 0–3 outside the Superdome in 2015. Their last trip, to Philadelphia, ended in an ugly 39–17 setback.
The Drew Brees–Andrew Luck showdown that this game promised looks like it’ll be delivered after all. Both QBs have struggled through shoulder ailments this season, but Luck was relatively sharp last Sunday night in a loss to New England, and Brees touched up Atlanta for 312 yards through the air. —CB
Steelers at Chiefs (1 p.m., CBS)
Two things we didn't expect this season: Pittsburgh's defense holding its own and Kansas City's offense falling apart. New Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has his unit playing at a level we haven't seen in years, especially in the secondary, which is very bad news for a Chiefs team that seems to have lost its ability to score points and sustain drives consistently. Andy Reid’s team got its first win of the season in an ugly game against the Vikings last Sunday; the Steelers won't be as accommodating, even with Landry Jones at quarterback. —DF
Texans at Dolphins (1 p.m., CBS)
“To me, this is the home opener,” Miami interim coach Dan Campbell said this week, per the Palm Beach Post. “As far as I’m concerned, we haven’t played there yet this season.” An admirable approach, though one that, unfortunately for the Dolphins, does not erase miserable home efforts against Buffalo and the Jets.Still, if Campbell can wipe the slate clean and replicate last week's hard-nosed, Lamar Miller-centric game plan, Miami could be back to .500 by Sunday.
Falcons at Titans (1 p.m., CBS)
The Falcons have had a few extra days to recover from their first loss of the season, a 31–21 shocker against the Saints on Oct. 15. In that game, New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan negated Atlanta’s high-powered offense with tight man coverage and run blitzes up the middle. The Titans don't have the talent in the secondary to get away with letting Julio Jones stay open underneath, so a similar defensive game plan would be the key to any kind of upset. —DF
Cowboys at Giants (4:25 p.m., FOX)
The Giants had the Cowboys on the ropes in Week 1, only to bungle a seemingly routine game management situation, thus setting the stage for a dramatic Dallas touchdown drive in the final seconds. Tony Romo was at the heart of almost everything in that one: He threw three TD passes, including the game-winner to Jason Witten with seven seconds left, but his two interceptions also led to 10 Giants points.
This time around, Matt Cassel will be under center for his Cowboys debut. The Giants will try to force him into mistakes, but they’re also coming off a lethargic 27–7 loss in Philadelphia. Eli Manning has to dodge his own errors, which won’t be easy behind a shoddy offensive line and possibly without both Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz. —CB
Browns at Rams (1 p.m., CBS)
All eyes will be on sensational St. Louis rookie running back Todd Gurley, who rushed for 146 yards in Week 4 and another 159 yards the following Sunday. He draws the league's worst run defense here, a Cleveland unit that has allowed 150-plus yards in five of six games.
That matchup could be a mismatch in Gurley’s favor. An even bigger mismatch: the Browns’ passing attack vs. the Rams’ defense. Cleveland’s Josh McCown is averaging 283.2 yards per outing, but St. Louis has been stingy through the air. McCown also needs time to throw. Eleven different Rams have recorded at least a half-sack this season, paced by Robert Quinn (4.0) and Aaron Donald (3.5). —CB
Ravens at Cardinals (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
This looked like a far more intriguing battle before the season began, before Baltimore collapsed into irrelevancy and Arizona dropped two of its last three games after a very hot start. In losses to the Rams and Steelers, Bruce Arians’s team proved vulnerable to physical opponents, which may or may not be what the Ravens are these days. Baltimore’s only win of the season came against the Steelers a few weeks back, and if Pittsburgh had had a decent kicker on its roster, the Ravens could easily be looking at 0–6. —DF
Only For the Masochists
Bills at Jaguars (in London, 9:30 a.m., Yahoo!)
The second of the NFL's three London games this season (Lions–Chiefs will wrap the international slate next week). Both the Bills and Jaguars expected to be in better shape than they are—Buffalo is treading water at 3–3; Jacksonville sits at 1–5 and is steaming toward a top-five pick. Injuries continue to hamstring both offenses, too. Percy Harvin, Sammy Watkins and likely Marqise Lee and T.J. Yeldon all will miss this one. —CB
Vikings at Lions (1 p.m., FOX)
Only one of these teams is still in contention. The 3–2 Vikings look like a playoff team when Teddy Bridgewater is on, while the 1–5 Lions are playing in a way that ensures the eventual replacement of coach Jim Caldwell. Detroit getting its first win against the Bears was nice last Sunday, but Minnesota provides a far stiffer test. —DF
Raiders at Chargers (4:05 p.m., CBS)
Did anyone have the Raiders sitting in second place on Oct. 23? That's where they are for now, holding a half-game edge on the struggling Chargers. Philip Rivers threw the ball 65 times for 503 yards last week ... and lost. Oakland might have the horses to get into a shootout, but Khalil Mack, Aldon Smith and an emerging pass rush could limit Rivers’s numbers. —CB
Buccaneers at Redskins (1 p.m., FOX)
Jay Gruden has made one thing perfectly clear: No matter how badly Kirk Cousins plays, his coach will stick with him. That strategy, as flawed as it is, may work against a Buccaneers defense that seems firmly stuck in the 1990s. The big news on offense for the Bucs is the rejuvenation of running back Doug Martin, who has asked that people drop his “Muscle Hamster” nickname and replace it with “The Dougernaut.” If Martin lives up to his name, Gruden could have a lot more problems than the babying of his average-at-best quarterback. —DF
• He’s been in the news of late for the NFL's furor over the eye-black honoring his late father, but Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward is playing about as well as any 3–4 defensive end not named J.J. Watt these days. He’s got 18 run tackles and 12 run stops in 114 snaps, and he leads the league among 3–4 ends with 18 quarterback hurries to go with his two sacks.
• As well as Philip Rivers is playing this season, imagine if his coaching staff believed in implementing more play-action. It’s a trend that goes back to last season, when Rivers completed 40 of 48 play-action passes for 494 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, and 339 completions in 522 attempts for 3,792 yards, 27 touchdowns and 18 interceptions on all other passes. That’s a difference of 18.4% in completion rate and 3.0 yards per play. This season, he’s completed 28 passes in 33 play-action attempts for 305 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, compared to 150 completions in 221 attempts for 1,812 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions without play-action. That’s a difference of 16.9% in completion rate and 1.0 yards per play. Small sample size, but the numbers still tell us something over two years. Note to Chargers coach Mike McCoy: Use your most important player in the way he’s more successful, and maybe you won’t lose games in which he passes for 503 yards, which is what happened against the Packers last week.
• It’s time to celebrate Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth again. Last season, he led the league in fewest pressures allowed for any qualifying lineman with just nine—no sacks, one quarterback hit and eight quarterback hurries—in 533 pass-blocking snaps. This season, he has allowed just four pressures—no sacks, no hits and four hurries—in 210 pass-blocking snaps. That consistency is why the Bengals signed Whitworth to a two-year, $14.2 million contract extension in September that will keep him in stripes through the 2016 season. It’s still an extreme bargain, as Whitworth plays the position as well as anybody could expect.
Player(s) with the most to prove
Knile Davis and Charcandrick West, Chiefs: The Kansas City offense is in dire straits, having tallied a combined 27 points in losses to Chicago and Minnesota. With Jamaal Charles out for the year, the Chiefs have no choice but to hope that Davis and West can kick-start the run game and take some pressure off quarterback Alex Smith. They didn’t last week, as the Vikings limited the duo to 46 yards on 14 carries. —CB
Underrated player to watch
Browns TE Gary Barnidge. Barnidge was a fifth-round pick of the Panthers out of Louisville in 2008, and through his time in Carolina and Cleveland, he’d never amassed more than 21 catches and 240 receiving yards in a single season. That season, by the way, was 2009. That’s all changed this year, as Barnidge has 27 catches for 413 yards and five touchdowns. No matter whether Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel has been Cleveland’s quarterback, Barnidge has been a favorite target. He put up the catch of the year against the Ravens a couple weeks back, but his game is about more than highlights. He’s among the NFL’s leaders in deep receptions and slot targets, and the Browns have turned him into a versatile weapon.
Something will have to give Sunday in London, but the Bills and Jaguars haven’t exactly had the best luck when stepping outside the country. Jacksonville is 0–2 in its trips to Wembley Stadium (42–10 loss to San Francisco in 2013 and a 31–17 loss to Dallas last year). Buffalo, meanwhile, posted a miserable 1–5 mark during an annual Toronto “home” game from 2008–13; the Bills also lost in both preseason games they played at the Rogers Centre. —CB
Burke: Giants. Given the NFC East’s current state, falling to 3–4 wouldn't be the end of the world. Doing so by losing back-to-back games to Philadelphia and a Tony Romo-less Dallas team, though ...
It’s not too difficult to scan the Giants’ remaining schedule after this game and find four or five more losses—they still play New England, the Jets, Carolina and go to Washington, Miami and Minnesota, among other games. Even if 8–8 or 9–7 gets it done in the East this season, New York will be climbing out of a hole if it can’t avoid a Cowboys season sweep Sunday. —CB
Farrar: Bills. Rex Ryan’s players are complaining about his defensive scheme, Tyrod Taylor can’t stay healthy and Percy Harvin has gone AWOL. Nothing says Rex like drama, and he’s got his share of it these days. Now, the Bills are in London to take on the Jaguars, who hope they can shake up Buffalo’s W-L-W-L-W-L start and send the Bills back to America under .500. The Jags still have a ways to go, but Blake Bortles has been a relative bright spot in his second NFL season. This game is no gimme for Buffalo.
Tecmo Super Bowl Upset of the Week
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, The Playbook will spotlight the most surprising result:
Not sure what our Tecmo Super Simulator 3000 has against the Patriots, but this makes two weeks in a row that it’s called for Tom Brady’s boys to fall. In this one, Ryan Fitzpatrick managed to find Eric Decker for a few big gains. The Jets also somehow limited Brady to just 118 yards, despite an 80% completion rate. —CB