By the end of Week 9, everyone in the league will have played at least eight games, bringing us to the official midway point of the 2015 season.
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 9 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 shocking Tecmo Bowl upset prediction.
Packers at Panthers (1 p.m., FOX)
The Packers’ first loss of the season at the hands of the Broncos’ estimable defense brought to the forefront an issue that has been plaguing Aaron Rodgers and his receivers all season: a game plan devised by coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements that doesn’t create easy openings for Rodgers’s receivers against aggressive coverage. Rodgers’s 77 total yards against Denver was the clearest sign to date of a problem that’s been going on for a while.
The job won’t get any easier against the Panthers, one of the league’s four remaining undefeated teams. Carolina has a ferocious pass rush, outstanding linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and the best cornerback in the game in Josh Norman. Whoever takes Norman on will have a very difficult day, and that won't be helped by a bunch of collegiate route concepts. McCarthy and Clements better open up the playbook before they start sliding farther down the conference standings.
For Carolina, everything is coming up roses these days. The Panthers survived a late scare from the Colts last Monday night, but anyone still thinking this team isn’t for real had better take a closer look. With quarterback Cam Newton, fullback Mike Tolbert and running back Jonathan Stewart, Carolina has the NFL’s most powerful and diverse running game. Add to that Newton’s clear development as a pure passer, especially when it comes to pocket movement and passing alignment, and this job becomes a lot tougher than anyone involved with the Packers organization would have expected before the season began. Green Bay’s defense is the unit that will have to step up, especially in stopping the run. The Packers’ defensive backs far outclass Carolina’s receivers, but Newton will lean on his impressive connection with tight end Greg Olsen unless someone (most likely linebacker Clay Matthews) forces him to go a different direction. —DF
Rams at Vikings (1 p.m., FOX)
“This is Rams against Vikings,” St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said on the NFL Network this week, “not [Adrian Peterson] against [Todd Gurley].”
Are we sure? Can we check the rules?
OK, fine, so Peterson and Gurley will not line up head to head on Sunday afternoon. That does little to take away from the showdown between Peterson, arguably the greatest running back of his era, and Gurley, a leading Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Both players sit top five in rushing this season—Gurley in spite of having played just five games.
Gurley’s rapid emergence has helped turn the Rams into playoff contenders. He is averaging 146.5 yards over his past four games, showing no ill effects from the gruesome knee injury that ended his college career. The Rams have gone 3–1 during Gurley’s hot streak, putting them right on Minnesota’s heels in the wild-card race.
“He's going to be special, and that's the only way I can describe it,” Fisher said of Gurley. “Can't compare him to anybody, anybody that I’ve played with or coached or coached along with or defended. He's going to be special.”
And the Vikings will not be complaining about Peterson’s impact on their offense, either. In all five of their wins this season, the Vikings have outrushed their opponents, with Peterson leading the charge.
Neither Peterson nor Gurley looks all that containable at the moment, meaning the outcome Sunday could boil down to which passing attack shows some life. Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater has delivered when needed most weeks, though no one would describe the Vikings’ passing game as explosive, especially not with Bridgewater constantly under heat behind a shaky O-line. St. Louis’s Nick Foles has been even less consistent—the Rams rank dead last in passing yards, and Foles is averaging a measly 15.7 completions per outing.
These teams are very similar to each other in a lot of ways, not the least of which being that they thrive off aggressive defenses capable of getting after the QB. Only Denver (29) has more sacks than St. Louis (26) this season. Minnesota has 18 itself, though its defensive strength really lies in an athletic, versatile back seven.
We may not get Peterson vs. Gurley mano a mano, but there is plenty to watch in this critical NFC contest. —CB
Raiders at Steelers (1 p.m., CBS)
This won’t quite match the intensity of the pier-sixers the Steelers and Raiders used to have in the 1970s, but the stakes are higher than they’ve been in a good, long time. The Steelers are coming around on offense with the return of Ben Roethlisberger, and the season-ending injury to running back Le’Veon Bell doesn’t hurt quite as much thanks to the contributions of off-season addition DeAngelo Williams. In addition, Pittsburgh’s defense is playing better than it has in a few years—new defensive coordinator Keith Butler has done a great job moving a lot of new pieces around. The Steelers are definitely a team back on the rise.
Oakland’s ascent is a bit more of a surprise, but it’s no fluke. Second-year quarterback Derek Carr has his offense well in hand, rookie receiver Amari Cooper has become everything his new team hoped he’d be, and the Oakland offensive line is one of the league’s best and most underrated. There are still issues on defense, but coach Jack Del Rio and coordinator Ken Norton have extracted fine performances out of youngsters like Khalil Mack and Malcolm Smith, and 39-year-old safety Charles Woodson is playing as if he’s found the proverbial fountain of youth. For the first time in years, the Raiders are no pushover.
The challenge for Oakland's defense in this game will be to keep up with the no-huddle if the Steelers start to employ it more often (which they'll likely do with Roethlisberger back in the fold).
One thing’s for sure: Squarely in the AFC wild-card race at midseason, the young Raiders aren't going to let their 4–3 start lead to a false sense of security. —DF
Broncos at Colts (4:25 p.m., CBS)
Emotions ran high when Peyton Manning made his first return visit to his longtime home in 2013, right on down to the video tribute. There will be far less pomp and circumstance this time around now that Manning is in his fourth season as a Bronco.
The reeling Colts would love to replicate the outcome of Manning’s previous Indianapolis trip, though. Andrew Luck threw for three touchdowns in a wild 39–33 victory.
Luck’s offense had fewer weapons at its disposal then, but it came through far more often than the 2015 version has. Just this week, the Colts fired offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and handed Rob Chudzinski his job in hopes of sparking a labored attack. Luck did get into a groove late against Carolina during a 17-point fourth quarter rally last Monday. He also threw three interceptions, the last coming in overtime to help the Panthers lock up a win.
Awaiting Luck this week is a Denver defense that was unparalleled during the first half of the season. That unit stands as the NFL’s best in both points and yards allowed, as well as against the pass. The Broncos have forced three or more turnovers in four games; they didn’t get any against Green Bay last week but allowed a mere 140 yards in a runaway win.
Luck can dodge pressure, but his decision-making has been flawed this season, so Denver may have a few opportunities to pounce.
Will Peyton Manning provide any for the Colts’ defense? After six mostly forgettable games from the future Hall of Famer, Manning looked a bit like his old self in posting 340 yards against the Packers. Better yet for Denver, its run game exploded to life—C.J. Anderson (who appeared healthy for the first time in a while) and Ronnie Hillman combined for 161 yards and three touchdowns.
In a lot of ways, the Colts’ defense has been almost as much of a problem as its offense this season. That’s particularly true against the run. Indianapolis is coughing up almost 125 yards per game on the ground, and physical opponents continue to control the trenches.
The Colts likely will not approach 40 points the way they did last time the Indianapolis fans saw Manning, so their defense has to give them a chance. —CB
Redskins at Patriots (1 p.m., FOX)
Does this matchup belong a category lower, in “Only for the Masochists” range? The oddsmakers seem to think so: New England is a whopping 14-point favorite as of Friday morning, according to Bovada. Washington has yet to win away from home this season (0–4), so perhaps that line is not so outlandish.
The pressure will be on Washington’s backfield—counting both quarterback Kirk Cousins and his running backs—to control the clock and keep Tom Brady on the sidelines. That group has pulled it off before this season. In a Week 4 win over Philadelphia, Washington possessed the ball for upwards of 41 minutes.
On the other hand, Brady’s offense doesn’t need long to strike. This one could get out of hand if Washington doesn’t answer the bell early. —CB
Dolphins at Bills (1 p.m., CBS)
Dan Campbell’s Dolphins had a two-week honeymoon with their interim head coach before the Patriots came calling two Thursdays ago with a 36–7 beatdown. That doesn’t diminish the effect Campbell has had on the team, but it does indicate how far they still are away from the perennial AFC East favorites. This week, they have a pretty decent shot at recovery against a Bills team whose defensive players have openly questioned Rex Ryan’s scheme. One potential problem for Miami could be the return of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who threw three touchdown passes in Week 3 to lift the Bills to victory in the teams’ first meeting. —DF
Jaguars at Jets (1 p.m., CBS)
The 4–3 Jets are close to being buried in the AFC East race. The 2–5 Jaguars could be tied for first with a win Sunday. Go figure. Such is life in the top-heavy, mediocrity-laden 2015 season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will start at QB for the Jets despite injuring his thumb last week. The real matchup to watch, though, comes when Jacksonville has the ball. Blake Bortles and his offense perked up prior to a Week 8 bye, averaging 28.3 points during a 2–1 stretch. So the Jets could have their hands full coming off a Sunday in which they allowed 451 yards and 34 points to Oakland. —CB
Titans at Saints (1 p.m., CBS)
Firing head coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed like a valid decision, given Whisenhunt’s 3–20 record for the Titans. But it doesn’t change the fact that outside of quarterback Marcus Mariota and defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, there just isn’t a lot of talent on that roster. Now, they have to deal with a Saints team that is definitely looking stronger than it did early in the season, fresh off Drew Brees’s seven-touchdown performance against the Giants. Interim head coach Mike Mularkey has no doubt conferred with defensive coordinator Ray Horton and associate head coach Dick LeBeau as to how to stop Brees from doing that all over again. —DF
Giants at Buccaneers (4:05 p.m., FOX)
Here’s one for the “Quarterback Wins” crowd: Last Sunday, Eli Manning threw for six touchdowns and no interceptions and “lost” to the Saints, because New York’s defense couldn’t stop Drew Brees from throwing seven scores. That bodes well for Jameis Winston and receiver Mike Evans, but on the other side of the ball, Manning has to be licking his chops to be facing a Bucs defense that seems firmly stuck in the early 2000s, with Tampa-2 and Cover-2 base defenses ruled the day. —DF
Eagles at Cowboys (8:30 p.m., NBC)
Still waiting on a team to take charge in the NFC East, but a Cowboys win here could help create an even bigger mess in the division. That result plus losses by Washington (at New England) and New York (at Tampa Bay) would leave every team below .500.
Of course, chaos is what Dallas had hoped for when Tony Romo broke his collarbone. The Cowboys would have preferred to win a few games along the way. They’re 0–5 without their starting QB. Philadelphia has taken three of its last five, thanks in large part to an opportunistic defense that has forced 19 turnovers this year. —CB
Only for the masochists
Falcons at 49ers (4:05 p.m., FOX)
According to some reports, the 49ers waited to bench Colin Kaepernick because they wanted to debut Blaine Gabbert against a relatively weak Atlanta defense. The Falcons don’t have world-beating personnel from front to back, but you can bet that coach Dan Quinn will scheme his guys into formations and concepts that leave Gabbert with a less than impressive performance. Some would say that showing up is all one needs to do to stop Gabbert; it’ll be up to him to push back against the public feeling that the 49ers have completely lost their grip on reality. —DF
Bears at Chargers (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
The Monday nighter is a dud if we’re talking about the standings—these teams are a combined 4–11. It could be a fun one nonetheless, thanks to the potentially explosive offenses. Philip Rivers leads the league in passing, and Jay Cutler has found a solid comfort zone in his new offense. Cutler will be without Matt Forte, so Jeremy Langford is the next man up. —CB
Learning to handle pressure efficiently is a big part of any quarterback’s repertoire, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this season’s best quarterback under pressure has also been its best quarterback. Tom Brady has completed 42 of 75 passes under pressure this season, with 19 sacks, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. A major factor in Brady’s ability to handle pressure is his ruthless efficiency in getting the ball out quickly. Per Pro Football Focus, when Brady has 2.5 seconds or less to get the ball out, he’s completed 162 of 226 passes for a 71.7% completion rate, compared to a 52.3% completion rate on passes where he has more time. Makes sense, as longer passes will naturally bring about a lower completion rate, but Brady’s locked into a system that works for him completely.
The least efficient quarterback under pressure this season? There are a few big names in the mix, but perhaps the most surprising is Cam Newton, given Newton’s athleticism and sense for pocket movement. When pressured, Newton has completed just 30 of 64 passes with no touchdowns and five picks. Washington’s Kirk Cousins has some pretty serious issues under pressure as well, with 47 of 88 completions, one touchdown and six picks.
And while Green Bay’s route concepts have been stilted at best this season, Aaron Rodgers is just as tremendous under pressure as he’s always been. Rodgers has completed 31 of 62 passes under pressure, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s possible that when Rodgers is pressured, his receivers find it easier to break off from those base routes and make more interesting things happen.
Player with the most to prove
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Steelers. Williams was just fine, thank you very much, when Le’Veon Bell had to sit in Weeks 1 and 2 due to suspension. During that two-game window, Williams carried the ball 41 times for 204 yards and three touchdowns. The Steelers will need similar production from him for the rest of the season, with Bell now done for 2015.
Two worries: durability and pass-catching. Williams has hit the 200-attempt mark just one in his past five seasons; he also is nowhere near the receiving threat Bell is—Pittsburgh's injured All-Pro caught 85 balls last year. —CB
Underrated player to watch
49ers OLB Aaron Lynch. No question at this point that the 49ers are a dumpster fire on steroids, especially with the recent and misbegotten benching of Colin Kaepernick, but Lynch has been an undeniable bright spot for a franchise that’s circling the drain. Among 4–3 outside linebackers this season, only Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Pernell McPhee and Von Miller have more total pressures than Lynch’s 36. He’s a problem for opposing quarterbacks from either side of the line, which is especially impressive given the relative lack of talent around him. The 2014 fifth-rounder out of South Florida is one of the few real hits in the late rounds of the draft for San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke. —DF
How’s this for a tough stretch on the schedule? With their trip to Carolina this week coming on the heels of a Week 8 stop in Denver, Green Bay is the first team in NFL history to play consecutive road games against teams 6–0 or better. The last time the Packers played against a 7–0 opponent was in 2008 against Tennessee. They lost that game in overtime. —CB
Burke: Cowboys. The Cowboys have at least two more games to endure before Tony Romo returns. Winning one of them, and in particular this one vs. Philadelphia, would ensure they have a real shot at chasing down the NFC East leaders with Romo and Dez Bryant together again. Lose this one, though, and the gap will start to widen between Dallas and the teams above it.
Farrar: Colts. Andrew Luck showed signs of greatness late in Indy’s overtime loss to the Panthers last Monday night, but at 3–5, the only advantage the Colts have at this point is that there’s nobody in the AFC South who looks like they’ll take the division over. With former offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton already fired and reports of open discord throughout the organization, it’s a wonderful time for Peyton Manning and the Broncos to come to Lucas Oil Stadium. If Denver’s defense embarrasses Luck as it has most of the quarterbacks it’s faced this season, Hamilton might not be the last guy out the door in short order.
Tecmo Bowl 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:
All aboard the Blaine Gabbert bandwagon! The 49ers rolled in his 2015 Tecmo debut, showcasing a defensive effort that would be nothing short of miraculous if it actually occurred Sunday.
Laugh at the outcome all you want, but fair warning: Our Tecmo simulator called the 49ers’ Week 1 win over Minnesota.