Week 10’s Sunday slate saves its best for last, with eight playoff hopefuls squaring off once the early window’s action concludes. But there’s no small amount of daytime drama, either, as the Panthers put their undefeated record on the line in Tennessee and the Cowboys look to stop their free fall against a slowly improving Tampa Bay squad.
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 10 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.
Panthers at Titans (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
A far stiffer test awaits this Sunday.
The Panthers reached the season’s halfway point without a loss, despite challenges each of the past two weeks from Indianapolis and Green Bay. The Panthers’ defense often gets the pub, but the offense has hit another level. In each of their past six games (with some help here and there from the defense), the Panthers scored at least 27 points.
For Tennessee to have any shot at the upset, Mariota will have to come up big ... and he will need a lot of help. Eight different Titans caught passes against the Saints, led by Delanie Walker’s 95 yards and two TDs and Dorial Green-Beckham’s five catches for 77 yards.
Green-Beckham, taken 38 spots after Mariota in the 2015 draft, has yet to enjoy a breakout performance. That production against the Saints, though, marked his best game to date, and it just so happened to come in interim coach Mike Mularkey’s debut.
“DGB, to make some of the plays that he did, that was a big, giant step for him,” Mularkey said. “We put a lot of pressure on him to come in and make some plays. And he did. He is going to be that much better after one game. Just [getting] the experience [is important]. There were explosive plays that he left out there. It was all good for him, all positive things.”
Unleashing Green-Beckham in full may have to wait another week. Sunday, he’ll likely see plenty of matchups with Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, a Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner at the season’s halfway point. Norman has allowed just a 30.5 passer rating on balls thrown his direction, with four interceptions.
The Panthers have an Offensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate on the other side of the ball in Cam Newton. His MVP campaign looks like a dead end with Tom Brady out there, but there is no underselling Newton’s impact on the Panthers this year. Of Carolina’s 427 yards last week, Newton accounted for 354.
While the Titans’ pass defense is nothing to sneeze at, shutting down Newton entirely will be a chore. More than likely, Mariota will have to counter with points of his own. Is he up to the task? —CB
Vikings at Raiders (4:05 p.m., FOX)
This is a Super Bowl XI rematch, and it seems about as long since the Raiders have been relevant, but Jack Del Rio’s 4–4 team has a lot going right for it these days. Start with second-year quarterback Derek Carr, who has improved everything about his game in the 2015 season—from field awareness to throwing under pressure to the accuracy of his deep ball—and he’s got the offensive line, running game and receiving corps to help him. This is clearly a team on the rise on that side of the ball.
Where the Raiders are still vulnerable is on defense, as they proved in last Sunday’s 38–35 loss to the Steelers. Oakland turned the ball over four times, and even with an offense firing on all cylinders and Ben Roethlisberger leaving the game injured, the defense couldn’t hold things together. Especially in the secondary, that’s a problem that can only be solved by new personnel over time.
But in this matchup, the Raiders’ secondary issues may not matter too much. The Vikings are 6–2, but they haven’t beaten a team over .500 this season, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is recovering from a concussion after taking a vicious and illegal hit from St. Louis’s Lamarcus Joyner last Sunday. Bridgewater has just one 300-yard passing game this season and four games under 200 yards, and you can chalk part of that up to an uneven receiver corps and an iffy offensive line.
The Vikings are getting it done on defense and in the run game, where Adrian Peterson looks like he hasn’t lost a single step after missing nearly all of 2014. Rookie receiver Stefon Diggs looks to be the main man to exploit a Raiders secondary that allowed Steelers receiver Antonio Brown to have a historic day last Sunday. If Bridgewater can connect with Diggs often enough and Minnesota’s defense can shut down the estimable duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, the Vikings could go into their Nov. 22 matchup with the Packers with an eye on actually building a lead in the NFC North. —DF
Patriots at Giants (4:25 p.m., CBS)
All the talk built up about the two recent Super Bowls in which Tom Coughlin’s Giants took down Bill Belichick’s favored Patriots? Set that stuff aside; this Giants team may not have too many David Tyree helmet catches or last-minute drives in it. The primary challenge for Coughlin’s team this time around is dealing with New England’s top-ranked passing attack, and doing it with a pass defense that ranks 26th in Football Outsiders’ metrics.
The 5–4 Giants have split their last four games and are coming off a 32–18 win over the sorry Buccaneers, in which they had to score furiously in the second half to avoid a Tampa Bay comeback. Meanwhile, the 8–0 Pats, still obviously taking the Deflategate thing out on the rest of the league just as they took Spygate out on the rest of the league in 2007, are coming off thrashings of the Dolphins and Redskins in which they have looked even more formidable than the 2007 team.
The difference this time around is defense, on both sidelines. Pats pass rusher Chandler Jones leads the league in sacks, cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler have excelled as starters, and the job Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are doing dialing things up is singularly impressive. Coughlin has Steve Spagnuolo, the same defensive coordinator he had back in 2007, but this defense isn’t a few plays away from total domination—the Giants have amassed just nine sacks all season and are allowing a league-worst 429 yards per game. New York does lead the league with 13 interceptions, but that’s not really an advantage against Brady, who has just two picks to his 22 touchdowns all season. The Patriots seem to be settling all family business this season, and you can likely add a win over their tough historical foes to that list. —DF
Cardinals at Seahawks (8:30 p.m., NBC)
The Cardinals’ 2014 season started to unravel when Carson Palmer injured his knee in a Week 10 win over St. Louis. But it was in two losses to Seattle (19–3 in Week 12 and 35–6 in Week 16) that things really fell apart.
With the Week 16 loss, the Cardinals lost their hold on the NFC West, slipping into second place. They would fall in the wild-card round, with an overwhelmed Ryan Lindley at quarterback, while Seattle advanced to the Super Bowl again.
So while there will remain a lot to sort out this regular season after Sunday night’s showdown, the Cardinals are eager to see what they can do with Palmer under center.
What they have done so far is put on display an explosive offense. The Cardinals are averaging 32.9 points per game, second only to New England’s 34.5 clip. Palmer is on pace to shatter his career highs in passing yards and touchdowns, while running back Chris Johnson's surprising resurgence has helped produce a balanced attack.
It goes without saying that the Seahawks’ defense will provide a test. This may not be an all-time great defensive unit, as it arguably was in recent years, but its potential to take over a game remains.
That’s less true of the Seattle offense, which cannot shake its inconsistencies up front. Arizona does not sack the quarterback often (13 times in eight games) but will bring pressure from various spots in hopes of flustering Russell Wilson.
Keep an eye on Arizona safety-turned-linebacker Deone Bucannon, who leads Arizona in tackles. His rangy presence in the front seven could be the key to keeping Wilson in the pocket and limiting Marshawn Lynch on the ground. Should either of those Seahawks break free on a regular basis, the Cardinals will be in for a long night.
The Cardinals would love to get some revenge for last season. More importantly, they want to keep the Seahawks at bay in this year’s division race. —CB
Browns at Steelers (1 p.m., CBS)
Their 2–7 record makes it easy to assume that the Browns are downright awful. That is not really the case. Despite sitting five games below .500, Cleveland has been competitive in just about every game since its opener. They’ll start Josh McCown if he is healthy enough, and the veteran QB has turned in several outstanding outings this year.
Pittsburgh’s quarterback situation is no mystery: Landry Jones will get the nod with Ben Roethlisberger sidelined again. He’ll hand off early and often to DeAngelo Williams, who gets the benefit of facing Cleveland’s 32nd-ranked rush defense. — CB
Dolphins at Eagles (1 p.m., CBS)
Remember when interim head coach Dan Campbell was taking over the world with his tough talk and Metallica soundtrack? Great story and all, but two convincing losses against the Patriots and Bills later, the Dolphins look like the same lost team Joe Philbin once led. The Eagles have been uneven all season, but they’re starting to put things together on offense, and last Sunday’s overtime win in Dallas seemed to be a galvanizing moment. —DF
Bears at Rams (1 p.m., CBS)
For the first time in five games, Todd Gurley failed to hit 100 yards rushing last Sunday as his Rams dropped an OT game in Minnesota—a definite blow to their playoff hopes. He should get back on track this week, up against a Bears defense that has surrendered 115 yards or more in six of eight games.
Chicago did hold San Diego’s run game in check (who hasn’t?) en route to a 22–19 road win on Monday Night Football. Jay Cutler & Co. continued to sizzle on offense, too. Credit another rookie running back, Jeremy Langford, who stepped in for an injured Matt Forte and racked up 142 total yards. —CB
Chiefs at Broncos (4:25 p.m., CBS) Did the Chiefs wait too long to heat up? Does beating Detroit and a Landry Jones-led Pittsburgh team even qualify as a hot streak? We should know a lot more about Kansas City’s capacity to get back in the playoff hunt after Sunday.
The Broncos have questions of their own, despite a 7–1 start. They were dominant in their last home game, a 29–10 win over Green Bay which was buoyed by a productive rushing attack. The ground game was nowhere to be found last Sunday in Indianapolis. Denver’s normally stout defense also faltered for the first time all season. —CB
Texans at Bengals (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
The 8–0 Bengals look to get the second half of their season off to a solid start, and it’s hard to see a way the Texans can upset the apple cart. Their one truly transcendent player, J.J. Watt, should be held in check by Cincy’s tremendous offensive line. And the Bengals’ pass rush is no slouch, either—end Carlos Dunlap is tied with Watt for second in the league with 8.5 sacks. This one could get ugly fairly quickly. —DF
Only for the masochists
Lions at Packers (1 p.m., FOX)
Sure, the Packers have been in a little rut the last two weeks, but the Lions already have begun cleaning house. Detroit also has not won in Green Bay since 1991, a streak that figures to continue on through Sunday. Don’t be surprised if Aaron Rodgers busts loose with a huge game here. —CB
Jaguars at Ravens (1 p.m., CBS)
The 2–6 Jags are still trying to figure things out, especially on defense, but they’ve got their deep passing game rolling thanks to second-year quarterback Blake Bortles, who leads all relevant stats on those types of throws. That’s not good news for a Ravens pass defense ranked 28th by Football Outsiders and highly susceptible to the deep pass. This looks to be a sloppy game, but one team will at least make it entertaining. —DF
Saints at Redskins (1 p.m., FOX)
Time for another Kirk Cousins statement game? Washington’s offense vanished in New England last week, but the Saints come in having allowed 83 points and 860 yards over their past two games (and they actually went 1–1). Drew Brees might have his own field day against a banged-up Washington secondary. —CB
Cowboys at Buccaneers (1 p.m., FOX)
The Cowboys are now 0–6 in games without Tony Romo, and a big story swept aside amid the Greg Hardy fiasco is the fact that Dallas’s offensive line isn’t what it used to be. Not that backup quarterback Matt Cassel is set up to take advantage. Tampa Bay’s defense has been pretty bad this year, but this could be a recovery game. The key for the Bucs is to catch the balls thrown by Jameis Winston—Mike Evans had six drops last Sunday. —DF
• Last season, the Cardinals’ defense ranked 27th in Football Outsiders’ metrics against tight ends; this season, they’re first. The reason for the change? First-year defensive coordinator James Bettcher has done a great job with his coverage and spacing concepts, and he’s using two hybrid players—cornerback/safety Tyrann Mathieu and safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon—to great effect.
• In his rookie season, Derek Carr was Captain Checkdown, but that’s changed in year two. Carr completed just 33% of his passes 15 yards or more downfield last season, with three touchdowns and three interceptions, but he’s kicked that up to 53% this season, with nine touchdowns and just one pick. Those nine deep touchdowns lead the league.
• More Raiders love: No running back has been stuffed less often than Oakland’s Latavius Murray. He’s been stopped for no gain or negative yardage on just five of his 132 carries. Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard is second in stuffed percentage among backs, with five stuffs in 91 carries.
• Adrian Peterson is definitely back in the saddle in 2015, but there is a feast-or-famine element to his production this season: He leads the league in rushes of 10 yards or more with 23, and he leads the league in stuffs with 27.
• It’s not a surprise that a running back leads the league in yards after catch—that’s what tends to happen when you’re catching the ball at the line of scrimmage and heading upfield with blockers. But not only does San Diego’s Danny Woodhead lead the league in yards after catch with 548, he’s got more YAC than he does actual receiving yards (521). —DF
Player with the most to prove
Brandon Browner, CB, Saints. Browner was in the news last Sunday because of a postgame outburst after the Saints’ terrible home loss to the Titans. (He later tweeted: “I accept I was wrong today” and then told reporters he regretted his actions.)
Even without that incident, he would have found himself in the spotlight this weekend against Washington. Browner, far and away the most heavily-flagged cornerback in the league this season with 16 penalties, will draw either DeSean Jackson or Pierre Garcon in a must-win game. The Saints need him to win those battles. —CB
Underrated player to watch
Broncos OLB Shaquil Barrett. The undrafted second-year man from Colorado State has been gaining momentum over the last few weeks, amassing sacks, tackles and stuffs at a pretty decent rate. He’ll likely start against the Chiefs in place of the injured DeMarcus Ware, and his coaches are very confident in his future with the team.
Barrett is an ideal fit as an edge rusher in Wade Phillips’s aggressive one-gap defense, and he’ll give the Chiefs a lot to handle this Sunday. —DF
Adrian Peterson has fewer rushing yards against the Raiders (26) than he does against any other team. Granted, he also has just six carries against Oakland, all coming during a 2011 home loss.
That season marked the last time the Raiders finished .500. —CB
Burke: Rams. A significant swing week arrives in the NFC West. If the Seahawks knock off the Cardinals on Sunday night, both they and St. Louis could be within a game of first-place Arizona. If the Cardinals win and the Rams lose to Chicago, Arizona would hold a three-game cushion.
Even if the Rams can’t chase down the division title, they obviously would like to stay in the wild-card race. To do so, they can’t afford to stumble against the Bears. After this matchup, the Rams head out to Baltimore and Cincinnati before coming home to host the Cardinals. Entering that tough stretch at 4–5 might be too much to overcome.
Farrar: Seahawks. Sunday night’s game against the Cardinals is pretty much the season for Pete Carroll’s team. If Arizona takes care of business at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks will fall to 4–5, three games behind the NFC West-leading Cards. With the Rams showing signs of life, Seattle has no more time to fix its inconsistencies.
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:
I think our Tecmo Super Simulator 3000 is broken. — CB