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Raiders, Vikings among dark-horse playoff contenders
1:12 | NFL
Raiders, Vikings among dark-horse playoff contenders
Chris Burke & Doug Farrar
Thursday October 29th, 2015

It's easy to trick ourselves into thinking we have everything figured out about the NFL, but how many of Week 8’s marquee matchups have seen their storylines pivot since early September? The Chiefs and Lions get Sunday started off with the year’s third and final early-morning London game, both looking for any footholds that might help stop their surprising falls from contention. When the Bengals visit Pittsburgh in the early window, it will be Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who takes the field with questions swirling about how quickly he can find his form, not Andy Dalton, the leader of the unbeaten Bengals. Who would have thought Jets–Raiders would have wild–card implications, or that the Packers and Broncos would meet as undefeated teams with their own glaring weaknesses?

Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 8 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.

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Main events

Bengals at Steelers (1 p.m., CBS)

The Steelers survived. They may not have turned in the prettiest four-plus weeks of football in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, and they absolutely would like to have that OT loss to Baltimore back, but if the playoffs started today, Pittsburgh would be a participant.

Just ask the Cowboys what an accomplishment that is. With Tony Romo out of the lineup, Dallas has lost four straight (and counting). The Steelers, first with Michael Vick and then with Landry Jones, scrapped their way to a 2–2 mark sans Big Ben.

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He returns to the lineup just in time for an important intra-division matchup with the 6–0 Bengals. Even with half the NFL regular season still to come, a win by Cincinnati at Heinz Field would all but end the AFC North race. Already, Cincinnati owns a 2.5-game lead on Pittsburgh; a victory Sunday would stretch that cushion to 3.5, and four in the loss column.

Pacing the Bengals’ early-season surge has been an offense bordering on unstoppable. Andy Dalton is completing 67% of his passes through six games, with 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Ten different Bengals (including offensive tackle Jake Fisher) have caught passes in 2015, led by A.J. Green’s 35 receptions and the emergence of Tyler Eifert as the game’s next great pass-catching tight end.

Pittsburgh’s improved defense also will have to contend with the Gio Bernard–Jeremy Hill combo out of the Cincinnati backfield. Between them, Bernard and Hill have eight touchdowns and 800 yards from scrimmage.

The Steelers have two talented backs themselves in Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, but it is Bell who carries the load when healthy. And there may not be a better all-around back in the NFL right now. Bell accounted for 235 yards and three touchdowns in a December win at Cincinnati last season before suffering an unfortunate knee injury during the rematch.

Roethlisberger’s return combined with Martavis Bryant’s recent reinstatement off suspension means that Cincinnati will get the full brunt of the Steelers' offense. The Bengals opened the year by stifling Oakland and San Diego’s potent passing attacks, but they have not seen anything close to Pittsburgh’s arsenal since.

Of course, no one has seen what a complete Pittsburgh offense can do yet this season. That should change Sunday. Will that be enough for the Steelers to end Cincinnati’s run?—CB

Jets at Raiders (4:05 p.m., CBS)

The Jets had this. They had this. They led the Patriots 20–16 early in the fourth quarter last Sunday and had provided just enough trouble for Tom Brady to make it look like they were going to upset the champs. Then, Brady did what he tends to do in the fourth quarter, and the next time everybody looked up, the Jets were down 30–23 and were left searching for answers. There’s no time to rest, though, because this Week 8 trip across the country comes with a lot of danger. The Raiders are definitely coming together on offense, their defense is playing surprisingly well, and outside of a 33–13 thrashing at the hands of the Bengals in Week 1, they’ve been competitive all the way through. Oakland is coming off a defining victory, beating the Chargers last Sunday quite decisively, and quarterback Derek Carr looks more and more like one of the league’s next greats at his position.

The challenge for the Raiders in this game will be for Carr to get the ball out quickly against New York’s furious interior pass rush. Since Oakland’s run game is no great shakes anyway, and the Jets have an amazing run defense, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio may want to take a page out of the Patriots’ playbook and run the ball minimally, if at all. Carr is an excellent short-to-intermediate thrower, and as long as he doesn’t find himself in any obvious passing situations, he can extend drives that way.

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On the other side of the ball, New York will want to ground-and-pound, which Oakland can counteract with a very active group of linebackers. Yes, Khalil Mack is an extreme problem for opposing offenses as a pass rusher and run stopper, but don’t sleep on Malcolm Smith and Curtis Lofton—both are great at filling gaps against the run, and Smith has three sacks to go with his team-leading 23 stops.

This game may have been an afterthought heading into this season, but now, it looks a bit like a possible wild-card playoff preview. —DF

Packers at Broncos (8:30 p.m., NBC)

With an NFL-record five teams coming into Week with 6–0 marks, it seemed inevitable (and quite satisfying) that two of the unbeatens would eventually meet. And this is a compelling matchup, though not for the reasons that it would have been a season ago. Back then, Peyton Manning was still dialing it up in an Adam Gase-led offense, there was no talk of quadriceps injuries, and Manning’s retirement didn’t seem like a merciful concept.

Now? Manning has a league-high 10 interceptions, which matched his total for the entire season two years ago. And the problems aren’t just tied to Manning’s physical decline—this season, he’s also throwing picks at a rate we haven’t seen from him in over a decade thanks to some truly mystifying field reads. Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics currently go back to 1989, and the 2015 Broncos are the first team in all that time to rank first overall in defense and dead last in offense—an unthinkable concept for any Manning-led team, but that’s where we are.

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Not that Green Bay’s offense is firing on all cylinders right now, either. Yes, Aaron Rodgers is still at his best, but the Pack haven’t been producing at their usual furious rate on that side of the ball lately. Rodgers has thrown for over 300 yards just once this season, and injured receivers are only part of the reason. The tape at this point in time shows a Packers offense where Rodgers isn’t being presented with a lot of easier first-read openings in the team’s base three-receiver sets—it’s fewer angles and more vertical concepts to whatever distance down the field. This has left Randall Cobb with a lot of double teams and defenses finding that passing game surprisingly easy to stop. To be fair, the Packers had the same basic problem early last season and eventually figured things out.

Here’s the main point for this Sunday night battle: You’re going to hear a lot about the quarterbacks, but don’t be surprised if the final result ends with one team with a score in the low teens, and that same team winning the game. —DF

Colts at Panthers (8:30 p.m., ESPN)

One quarterback in this game is playing at a high enough level to be in the MVP discussion, thus justifying the hype thrust upon him when he was taken No. 1 overall. The other quarterback is Andrew Luck.

It is Carolina’s Cam Newton, not Luck, who has thrived through the first half of this season. He has his Panthers sitting at 6-–0, one of five remaining undefeated teams left in the NFL. The MVP race may not get beyond Tom Brady (and if it does, Aaron Rodgers will be waiting), but Newton has elevated the offense around him—an offense starring a rather rag-tag bunch of wide receivers.

Luck, on the other hand, is still trying to find the mojo he had in 2013 and ’14. Oddly enough, he has more prolific passing numbers than Newton so far this season (plus more interceptions), despite having played in one fewer game because of a shoulder injury. Both before and after that shoulder issue popped up, Luck was playing indecisive, error-prone football. After a brief resurgence in a Week 6 loss to New England, that trend continued last week as the Colts fell to New Orleans.

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“We all know our starting quarterback has done some great things. Let’s not be too quick to judge,” embattled Colts coach Chuck Pagano said this week. “12 (Luck) is going to be fine, and we’re going to be fine.”

Even this version of Luck could be enough to win the AFC South—the Colts, at 3–4, still lead that putrid division by a game. The going still figures to be tough Monday, though, with the Panthers’ active defense waiting. Carolina is getting an All-Pro-level season from DT Kawann Short; ditto for CB Josh Norman.

That defense has provided plenty of leeway for the Newton-led offense. No opponent has managed more than 23 points against the Panthers this season, and even Newton’s three interceptions in Week 7 did not do all that much damage.

Carolina’s points have come mostly from Newton himself. He leads the team with four rushing touchdowns and has nine passing TDs, too.

The Colts have to find some way to keep him in check Monday, because their offense simply is not clicking right now. —CB

Undercards

Buccaneers at Falcons (1 p.m., FOX)

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After allowing the greatest comeback in Redskins history last Sunday, Lovie Smith's defense must now try and slow down a Falcons team that has been vulnerable to a degree over the last couple of games, but now faces a team that has been a get-well card for every offense lucky enough to have it on schedule. More and more, Smith looks like a coach who could be looking for work sooner rather than later. —DF

Vikings at Bears (1 p.m., FOX)

The last time Adrian Peterson saw the Bears, on Dec. 1, 2013, he rushed for 211 yards in a three-point win. This year’s Chicago defense is surrendering nearly 125 yards per game, as the front office continues turning over the roster in hopes of fitting it to Vic Fangio's scheme. Peterson, and the rest of Minnesota’s offense, should have the edge there.

It will be more of a toss-up when the Bears have the ball. Minnesota boasts the league’s second-ranked scoring defense and sacked Matthew Stafford seven times last week, but Jay Cutler’s high level of play has flown under the radar this season. The Vikings will have their hands full. —CB

Cardinals at Browns (1 p.m., FOX)

It doesn't really matter whether it’s Johnny Manziel or Josh McCown starting at quarterback for the Browns this Sunday—if Cleveland’s defense doesn’t find some way to stop the run, whichever QB starts will be on the bench a lot as Chris Johnson and his cohorts milk the clock and chalk up another impressive win for the Cards. And when Cleveland’s quarterbacks are on the field, they’ll have to deal with a dynamite defense led by the thrilling Tyrann Mathieu. This looks like a rout. —DF

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Giants at Saints (1 p.m., FOX)

This shaped up to be a throwaway matchup just a few weeks back. But the Giants have made their way to first place by winning four of five, and the Saints have crept back into the wild-card picture with wins in three of their last four.

The two veteran QBs, Eli Manning and Drew Brees, will be in the spotlight. While Brees has looked better (read: healthier) of late, the Saints’ Week 7 win in Indianapolis was as much about their run game and surprising defense as their QB. Manning will test that revamped New Orleans defensive unit. He has failed to top 200 yards through the air in New York’s past two games. —CB

Seahawks at Cowboys (4:25 p.m., FOX)

The Seattle defense woke up last week in a 20–3 win over San Francisco, putting the clamps on Colin Kaepernick. This time around, the Seahawks draw a Dallas offense still without Tony Romo and now down RB Joseph Randle (though the latter may not sting much). Dez Bryant is expected to play, at least.

Will it matter? Maybe, but only if the Cowboys’ defensive line can power through Seattle’s struggling front, as many teams have done so far in 2015. Captain Controversy himself, Greg Hardy, could be a key factor in the Cowboys’ chances to pull an upset. —CB

Only for the masochists

Lions at Chiefs (9:30 AM, FOX)

As much as people have been wondering about Andy Reid's future in Kansas City... is there a more lost and directionless team in the NFL now than the Lions? New offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (no, really), replacing the recently fired Joe Lombardi, must find a way to get his underperforming charges going against a still-hot Chiefs defense. Good luck with that, Jim Bob. —DF

Titans at Texans (1 p.m., CBS)

Marcus Mariota is a maybe to return from his knee injury, but the idea of throwing passes against the Texans should put a spring in his step. This Houston defense is coming off a 41-point first-half whitewashing at the hands of the Dolphins, and Tennessee's blitz-happy defense should pose problems for a Houston offense that already has more than its share of them. —DF

Chargers at Ravens (1 p.m., CBS)

Are there two more disappointing teams in the league? They are a combined 3–11 on the season and bring matching three-game losing streaks into Sunday. Philip Rivers remains on pace for 5,000-plus yards passing. Baltimore’s secondary could help his cause, though it played surprisingly well against Arizona last Monday. —CB

49ers at Rams (1 p.m., FOX)

Whatever minuscule progress Colin Kaepernick had been making vanished in a Thursday night loss to Seattle last week. St. Louis, on the other hand, is still trending up. Rookie of the Year frontrunner Todd Gurley is the biggest reason why. —CB

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Smarter stats

• One interesting thing about the Dolphins’ start under interim head coach Dan Campbell: Ryan Tannehill set the NFL record last Sunday with 25 straight completions over two games, but he hasn’t exactly been airing that out during that time. Entering Week 8, Tannehill had attempted 27 passes over 20 yards in the air, with nine completions for 311 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Out of those totals, only two attempts, one completion and 38 yards have come under the new regime. It’s a good way to get the offense in a better rhythm, especially with a new emphasis on the running game. The trend turned around somewhat on Thursday night in Foxboro, when Tannehill attempted eight deep passes against the Patriots, completing two for 52 yards. When you’re being run out of the stadium, the long ball becomes a little harder to avoid. —DF

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• If we want a deep-ball champ for 2015, let's go ahead and crown Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, who has shown tremendous improvement in many areas throughout his second season. Bortles leads the league in attempts over 20 yards (52), completions (19), and yards (435). Only Russell Wilson (5) has more deep touchdowns than Bortles’s four. Now, Bortles’s deep completion percentage of 42.3% may seem low, but only Wilson and Drew Brees have a higher completion rate on those types of passes. Watch out for that Jacksonville passing attack, as it will certainly test you downfield. —DF

• The Anemic Arm awards, for those quarterbacks taking at least 25% of their teams’ snaps? Marcus Mariota has completed just three of his 21 deep attempts, for a league-low completion rate of 14.3%. Kirk Cousins isn’t far behind with his five completions in 31 attempts. Peyton Manning has connected on just six of 26 deep balls. Matt Ryan of the Falcons is our checkdown champion so far, with just 7.9% of his passes going deep (and he should do it more often—he’s 9 of 19 on deep passes). And Mariota, Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Jets and Arizona’s Carson Palmer are tied for the league lead with three picks on their deep balls. At least Palmer has also completed 12 deep passes— Fitzpatrick has just five completions, and Mariota has as many deep picks as he does completions. —DF

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Player with the most to prove

Andrew Luck. His coach, Chuck Pagano, keeps insisting his QB will be fine, and the Colts still stand alone atop the AFC South. Luck has another chance Monday night against a stout Carolina defense to shake out of his early-season doldrums. —CB

Underrated player(s) to watch: Carolina’s O-line

Yes, we usually put just one player here, but this massively improved line is a big reason the Panthers have started 6–0 and are just one win off from their 2014 win total. Only three lines (the Cowboys, Raiders and Bengals) have given up fewer total pressures than the Panthers’ 51; last season, the Carolina line allowed 180 pressures.

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The rock stars this year are center Ryan Kalil and right guard Trai Turner. Kalil is the brains of the outfit and a superb double-teamer and second-level blocker, while Turner is a true force in power situations. The decision to replace Byron Bell at left tackle with Michael Oher was seen as a relative push given Oher’s disappointing 2014 season in Baltimore, but Oher has played decently enough. Yes, he’s given up a team-high three sacks, and nobody’s going to mistake him for Joe Thomas anytime soon, but he fits this power run game far better than Bell did. Left guard Andrew Norwell, a second-year undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, has given up a couple of sacks but just 10 total pressures, and he aligns well with Oher in run-blocking on the left side. Right tackle Mike Remmers hasn’t allowed a single sack on the right side, though his high hurry total is somewhat worrisome. In any case, this offensive line, which many viewed to be a near-disaster before the season began, has instead become a relative strength. —DF

Quirkiest storyline

The Seahawks have lost the last four times they took on the Cowboys in November, with their last win under those circumstances coming on Thanksgiving Day 1986. Seattle then lost to Dallas in November of 1998, in a Warren Moon–Troy Aikman showdown. And Dallas also beat Seattle in a November matchup during 2008 (another Thanksgiving game), 2009 and 2010–all games in which the Cowboys were the home team, as they will be Sunday afternoon. —CB

Must-win watch

Burke: Rams. Is this truly a different St. Louis team, or is it the same old song and dance under Jeff Fisher? This week’s matchup with San Francisco will provide something of an answer. Win that game, and the Rams can set their sights on contending for the playoffs. Lose it, and it will be further proof that Fisher’s team too often plays up or down to its competition.

Farrar: Jets. Todd Bowles’s team came close against the Patriots last Sunday, but now they stand at 4–2, with the Dolphins standing at 3–4 and the nearly-sure knowledge that any non-New England team in the AFC East that wants a playoff berth is not going to get it with a division win. Traveling across the country to meet a surprising Raiders team who may be in wild card contention themselves certainly ups the ante. —DF

TecmoBowl Upset Special

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:

The Browns narrowly missed a real-life upset of Denver two weeks ago. They get a virtual one here, squeaking past the NFC West-leading Cardinals by a point. The hero: Brian Hartline, whose 123-yard performance outpaced Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona offense. —CB

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