Not to say it’s not a glamor slate of games in Week 9, but when the only two matchups that pit teams with winning records against each other are Green Bay at Carolina and St. Louis at Minnesota, you’re not making full use of the NFL’s marquee potential. Even the Broncos and Peyton Manning returning to Indianapolis for a rematch of the AFC playoff meeting with the Colts lacks some of the appeal we thought it would hold, except in a slow-down-and-gawk-at-the-car-crash sort of way. Such is the state of disarray in Indy at the moment.
But the middle week of the league’s long 17-week regular season does have some new and surprising twists: Mike Mularkey promoted to head coach in Tennessee; Blaine Gabbert a starting quarterback in San Francisco; Rob Chudzinski calling plays for the Pep-less Colts. And Thursday night’s Cleveland at Cincinnati game featured the Browns being quarterbacked by that bundle of entertainment, Johnny Manziel. So there’s that.
And who knows, maybe Philadelphia at Dallas turns into a riveting game that helps sort out the muddle that is the NFC East. Or Miami and Buffalo wage an instant classic that settles who owns last place in the AFC East. We could even climb into our way-back machine and hope Oakland at Pittsburgh gives us a battle straight out of their furious ’70’s-era rivalry.
But probably not. We’re still going to watch. It’s the NFL. It’s what we do. Now on to this week’s picks....
• Last week: 11-3; Season: 80-39 (.672).
• Worst pick in Week 8: Green Bay 24, Denver 20 (Actual score: Broncos 29–10).
The Bills have already dropped three home games in a row and will face a three-game road trip to the Jets, New England and Kansas City in Weeks 10 through 12, so Buffalo absolutely has to have this one against Miami if it is to harbor any legitimate wild-card hopes. I know this is a different Dolphins team than the listless squad that fell 41–14 to Buffalo in the Week 3 Miami home opener, but if it manages to close that 27-point gap in Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, things are going to get a bit ugly for Rex Ryan and his beleaguered Bills. Time to circle the wagons in Buffalo.
Getting embarrassed by an AFC superpower like Denver hurts plenty in Green Bay, but a Packers loss at Carolina could well wind up costing them a shot at the NFC’s top seed and homefield advantage in the playoffs, and that would prove far more consequential. Green Bay no longer looks explosive on offense and has gone four straight games without scoring 30 points or more, its first such slump since 2012. Let’s see what these Packers are made of. Carolina’s defense may be the best in the NFC, and Cam Newton is playing with supreme confidence. Time to get Randall Cobb untracked and Eddie Lacy back in gear, Green Bay. And I do expect a fully engaged Aaron Rodgers after his humbling night in Denver.
The Rams aren’t the only team with a dynamic, play-making rookie who’s on a roll. Todd Gurley has a post-merger record of 566 yards rushing in the first four starts of his career, but Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs has posted quite the month as well, becoming the first rookie to ever produce 85 or more of receiving yards in his first four games, according to the NFL. This is an intriguing game that pits midseason NFC playoff contenders, and the Vikings will have to step up their game if they intend to beat St. Louis, which has won three out of four. But Minnesota has become formidable at home, winning six in a row at TCF Bank Stadium, including a 3–0 mark this season. The Vikings will find a way to squeak one out, and hit the halfway point of their schedule at a very impressive 6–2.
Washington is about to run face first into a buzzsaw, coming off its bye with games at the Patriots (7–0), home against the Saints (4–4, but the winner of three in a row) and at Carolina (7–0). Joe Barry’s defense has hung in there this season, but it hasn’t seen anything that presents as many challenges as the New England juggernaut. Normally you’d think this would be a potential trap game for the Patriots, who could be caught looking ahead to next week’s trip to New Jersey to face the Giants, who have quite memorably spoiled a certain unbeaten streak of theirs in the past. But then again, the Patriots don’t really do trap games.
I recall chatting up Mike Mularkey at Titans camp this summer and he was positively smitten with Marcus Mariota’s rookie-season potential. And now the former Bills and Jaguars head coach is in charge of Tennessee’s first-round pick as the new interim coach in Nashville. But Mularkey gets no breather to break in with, drawing a trip to New Orleans, where the Saints have won three in a row and appear to have their dome-field mojo back. New Orleans scored 52 points last week against the Giants, while the Titans have managed just 36 in their past four games. So, no, I don’t foresee another shootout.
With Ryan Fitzpatrick expected to start at quarterback, this should be the game that calms the nerves of jittery Jets fans and gets Todd Bowles’s team back in the win column after two straight losses. At 5–3, the world will look a whole lot better. The Jaguars are a small-market club, but they just won in Week 7 on the big stage in London, and now have a chance to double their fun by pulling the upset against one of the league’s New York franchises. That would raise Jacksonville’s chronically low profile a bit.
The Steelers are fortunate to have DeAngelo Williams locked and loaded, ready to take over in the backfield. But he’s no Le’Veon Bell. So that means more of the offensive load is going to shift back onto the shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger, who threw a pair of very unaccustomed fourth-quarter interceptions in last Sunday’s home loss to Cincinnati. The Raiders are for real, but they’re not quite ready to go into Heinz Field and deal a desperate Steelers team a second consecutive damaging loss. Big Ben will come through with enough plays in the passing game to get Pittsburgh to 5–4. One Steelers footnote: I love that Pittsburgh claimed return man Jacoby Jones on Thursday, after San Diego released him this week. Someone tell Mike Tomlin that he could choose to obstruct Jones’ path from the sideline in practice, but it wouldn’t be helpful.
The 49ers reportedly thought the Falcons defense was soft enough to give Blaine Gabbert his best possible chance to succeed in his first start as San Francisco’s quarterback. But where’s the logic in that? If Atlanta is so beatable, wouldn’t the 49ers have been better off giving the benched Colin Kaepernick his last best shot at winning a home game and resurrecting his faltering game? I don’t understand much about the 49ers these days, but I am convinced that this season’s mess in San Francisco is exactly what Jed York and Trent Baalke bargained for.
The Giants still don’t know when Victor Cruz will be able to rejoin their receiving corps, but they don’t need him as desperately as they need pass rush help—that’s why the return of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul could be a much-needed boost if he makes his season debut against the Bucs. New York’s offense did its part last week in New Orleans, scoring seven touchdowns, but Steve Spagnuolo’s defense gave up seven touchdowns plus a field goal in what had to be a nasty flashback for Spagnuolo of his one-year stay in the Big Easy in 2012. Jameis Winston is starting to learn how to take care of the football and that’s paying dividends. And with an 86.5 passer rating that’s the highest through seven games of any quarterback taken first overall in the Super Bowl era, Winston is showing why the Bucs made him their easy choice in last spring’s draft.
Just as I predicted in August, Andrew Luck leads the NFL with 12 interceptions and Peyton Manning is tied for second with 11. Funny, but I can’t find where I wrote that. Have to admit, I went to bed a bit earlier than usual Monday night and missed most of the Colts’ furious fourth-quarter comeback against Carolina. But why is it that Luck can’t seem to turn it on this season until Indy trails by two touchdowns? Can the Colts somehow delude him into thinking he’s down 14–0 at the opening kickoff, or is that where the Stanford education gets in the way? From the Colts’ perspective, this is not the ideal time to be welcoming Peyton Manning back to town, for a couple reasons: First, he’s coming off his best game of the season throwing the ball, with 340 yards passing against Green Bay; and secondly, he’s bringing that fearsome Broncos defense with him. Denver is going to get after Mr. Luck late Sunday afternoon and evening, and Chuck Pagano won’t be able to blame this one on Pep Hamilton.
The Eagles have the Cowboys right where they want them, meaning at home in Arlington. Dallas is 1–3 at AT&T Stadium this season, and that one win was gift-wrapped by the clock-bungling Giants on Sunday night of Week 1. Even last year, Dallas went just 4–4 at home to go along with that 8–0 road mark. And Philly has won two in a row in Dallas under coach Chip Kelly, including last year’s 33–10 rout on Thanksgiving. Overall, the road team has won five in a row and nine of 11 this season, and that includes the Cowboys’ Week 2 win at Lincoln Financial Field, in the game they lost Tony Romo. I’d look for a solid game out of DeMarco Murray, who’s making his homecoming to Dallas. The Eagles running back has amends to make after that galling 13-carry, two-yard rushing day against the Cowboys in Week 2. A win gets the Eagles back to 2–2 in the division and helps bury desperate Dallas a little deeper in the NFC East.
The Monday night finale for Week 9 isn’t going to set any viewership records. The Chargers and Bears are a combined 4–11 and are going nowhere in the playoff race. What’s that you say? San Diego has the NFL’s top-rated offense when measured by yards? Big deal. The Chargers also have a knack for doing whatever it takes to lose. The Bears at least have over-achieved by some standards this season, playing most teams tougher than many expected. San Diego, however, will limp into its Week 10 bye riding the momentum of its third win. If not, perhaps the Chargers should consider leaving for Los Angeles a couple months early.