The Vikings and Eagles are linked thanks to their preseason trade of Sam Bradford. Who has the edge as the two legitimate NFC contenders face off in Week 7?
Sam Bradford, say hi to the Eagles.
Eagles, I believe you know Sam.
The two franchises linked in inextricable fashion thanks to Bradford’s preseason trade—and Carson Wentz’s subsequent promotion—meet on Sunday, when the Vikings head to Philadelphia. The move did not come until Sept. 3, less than a week after Teddy Bridgewater tore up his knee in practice and eight days before the first Sunday of the NFL season.
With Bradford replacing Bridgewater at QB, the Vikings have stormed out to a 5-0 start. You won’t hear any complaints out of Philadelphia, either. Wentz has looked the part of a franchise QB, despite his team’s recent slip.
“It’s a win-win,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said this week of the trade, per NJ.com. “It gave our first-round pick, our No. 2 overall pick a chance to play. And we’re 3–2. We were 3–0. And from their standpoint, they got a good quarterback.’’
This easily could have gone off the rails on both sides. It still could, to an extent—Bradford has played a full 16 games just twice in his five previous seasons; the Eagles face four current division leaders plus three more 2015 playoff teams over the next two months. For the moment, though, the outlook is rosy for the Vikings and Eagles. The former is the lone undefeated left in the NFL this season.
And Wentz does appear to be the real deal, which is what Philadelphia hoped for when they took him at No. 2 overall, but they likely didn’t plan on him showing it quite this early. Through five starts, he has seven touchdowns to just one interception, with a QB rating (99.9) that ranks among the league’s top 10.
“The biggest thing that is Carson’s strength is his ability to process quickly at the line of scrimmage, that was very noticeable when he was with us,” Wentz’s quarterbacks coach at North Dakota State, ex-Buccaneers draft pick Randy Hedberg, says. “We made a lot of dual (run-pass option) calls similar to what he’s doing with the Eagles. He was able to translate that pretty quickly.”
The Vikings’ brilliant defense will keep him on his toes Sunday. Wentz will be in a world of trouble if rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, starting for the suspended Lane Johnson, is left on an island against Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter. When Vaitai had to go one-on-one with Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan last week, the results were disastrous for Philadelphia—Kerrigan notched 2.5 sacks in a 27–20 Washington win.
Can the Eagles keep their promising young quarterback upright enough to pull off the upset Sunday? That pick, plus all the rest of this week’s breakdowns below:
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Devontae Booker, RB, Broncos: Denver keeps upping his reps, as C.J. Anderson slumps. The Texans have had issues containing the run—four of their past five opponents have topped the century mark on the ground, including Indianapolis with Frank Gore.
2. Ereck Flowers, OT, Giants: The Rams are hoping to have DE Robert Quinn back on the field Sunday, which would be bad news for Flowers. New York’s struggles up front offensively are nothing new, and the attention blockers have to pay inside to Aaron Donald means a lot of one-on-one matchups wide. Flowers will have his hands full.
3. Brian Orakpo, OLB, Titans: Orakpo is quietly having a monster year—the 7.0 sacks he’s recorded thus far match his total from a year ago. And Indianapolis cannot, no matter what it tries, keep Andrew Luck upright. He has been dropped for 23 sacks already, the most in the league. Orakpo could live in Luck’s pocket all afternoon.
4. Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings: The third-year receiver is coming off his first career 100-yard game (eight catches for 127 and a TD). Assuming the Eagles can keep Minnesota’s run game in check, as more or less every Vikings opponent has done thus far, Sam Bradford will have to move the sticks through the air. Thielen has developed into one of his favorite targets.
• Last week: 12–3 overall (58–34 season), 9–4–2 vs. the spread (48–43–2 season).
• Best pick in Week 6: Redskins 27, Eagles 21 (actual score: Redskins 27–21).
• Worst pick in Week 6: Steelers 28, Dolphins 24 (actual score: Dolphins 30–15).
Coming off back-to-back losses, the Rams now must cough up one of their home games for the 5,437-mile journey to London. The reward for Los Angeles fans: A 6:30 a.m. PT kickoff. What better way to grow the NFL’s overseas presence than by sending Jeff Fisher and his safari-hunter mustache to Britain? Oh, and Case Keenum will be there, too! He just threw for 321 yards and three TDs in a loss to Detroit, his second-best statistical game ever. The Giants have not been as stingy against the run of late, but they will follow the pattern of loading up on Todd Gurley to force Keenum to the air. When their own QB, Eli Manning, wants to drop and fire, he’ll hope Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring) can find space the way he did on his two long touchdowns against the Ravens last week. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford just carved up the Rams’ defense with a quick-strike approach—that’s Manning’s M.O. in his offense.
Watchability index: 3. The winner heads into its bye 4–3 and feeling pretty good. The big draws are that a. this game cuts into the wait for afternoon action, and b. Twickenham Stadium, a legendary rugby facility, should make for a cool venue.
The Raiders’ offense hit a wall against Kansas City last week—aside from connecting with Amari Cooper for 10 receptions and 129 yards, Derek Carr played his worst game of the year. A boost could come Sunday from RB Latavius Murray, whose presence is an undeniable upgrade to the run game. He was banged up starting in Week 4, and the Raiders have averaged 72 yards on the ground since that day. A little ball control would help Sunday, because Oakland’s still dead last in the league in pass defense. The Jaguars, in theory, should be able to exploit that weakness with Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and others, although that’s all contingent on Good Blake Bortles showing up.
Watchability index: 4. The Raiders are 3–0 on the road this year, with two wins in the Eastern Time Zone and one in the Central. That’s some rare and impressive success for a west-coast team traveling cross-country.
LeSean McCoy’s hamstring injury is a big deal. Huge, even. Through six games he’s right there in MVP and Offensive Player of the Year contention, and he has topped 100 from scrimmage in each of Buffalo’s last four games. Even against Miami’s pitiful run defense, the Bills would have trouble replacing him by committee. The news is better on defense, where rookie Shaq Lawson is ready to make his debut, just in time to face a Miami team that hung 474 yards on Pittsburgh last week. And the Bills are in a similar spot to the Steelers: catching Miami on the road, a week before a home showdown with New England. If the Dolphins can move the ball on the ground again, via Jay Ajayi, they could catch their AFC East rivals in the same trap Pittsburgh fell into.
Watchability index: 6. The Bills’ resurgence hits a critical stretch (at Miami, New England, at Seattle, bye, at Cincinnati). They can ill afford to drop this one, but the Dolphins finally found a little life last week.
The only team in football ranked in the top 10 of both Football Outsiders’ offensive and defensive DVOA (Defensive-adjusted Value Over Average) metric is Tennessee. Its success with the ball comes thanks to a potent run game, which is averaging 163.3 yards the past five outings. Marcus Mariota also delivered six passing TDs over Weeks 5-6, although last Sunday’s win did come over the Cleveland Bye Weeks. Indianapolis’s defense has yet to show the type of discipline required to slow Tennessee’s rushing attack, nor do the Colts have the secondary talent to excel one-on-one outside as they’ll have to do. So, again, their hopes rest on Andrew Luck’s arm.
Watchability index: 6. If you’ve seen any Colts games this season, you know this game comes down to the final possession.
Will either of these teams be able to get off the field Sunday? Detroit’s defense has allowed opponents to convert on a whopping 49.3% of their third-down attempts, the worst in the league; Washington sits 30th, at a 45.9% conversion rate against. If the game comes down to turnovers, we’re in something-has-to-give territory—the Lions are averaging fewer than one turnover per game on offense, but they’ve forced just four on defense. Both QBs, Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins, are in line for healthy afternoons. The X-factor is Jordan Reed’s health. While the Redskins won without him last week, Cousins completed just 53% of his passes (down from 77.8 and 70.8 the past two games, respectively). Overall in his career, Cousins has been far less productive when Reed is absent. Vernon Davis will have opportunities in Reed’s stead, because the Lions’ linebacking corps wouldn’t be able to cover their kids in a father-son game, but Reed is a huge piece of the offense.
Watchability index: 7. The Rams and Lions marched up and down the field on each last week, and this one has similar potential between two teams with playoff hopes.
Drew Brees is slinging the ball around to the tune of 346.6 yards per game, the highest clip of his career and 0.8 yards better than Matt Ryan atop the NFL ranks. But this weekend represents a substantial step up in competition. To this point, New Orleans has faced five of the 11 worst pass defenses in the NFL; Kansas City leads the league in interceptions with nine and just locked down the Raiders. The Chiefs are rounding into shape on offense, as well, with Jamaal Charles looking spry on Oakland’s muddy turf. Alex Smith had a perfectly Alex Smith-style game last Sunday, completing passes to nine different receivers, none of whom posted more than 49 yards total. Whether or not the big plays come vs. New Orleans, Smith can deliver death by a thousand paper cuts to a much-maligned secondary.
Watchability index: 5. Two ugly early losses aside, the Chiefs are going to be in the AFC West race down to the wire. The same cannot be said of the Saints in the NFC West.
What’s wrong with the Bengals? Well, pick just about any spot on the field and there is room for improvement, the most surprising disappointments coming up front on offense (Andy Dalton has been sacked 19 times) and in the frequency of big plays allowed on defense (both Dallas and New England gashed the Bengals for 400-plus yards). Reestablishing a scuffling run game, which has averaged just 3.4 yards per attempt, would help alleviate those headaches. The Browns’ porous defense should oblige there, and could give Tyler Eifert a favorable matchup should Cincinnati’s TE make his long-awaited return from injury Sunday. Don’t sleep on the Cleveland offense, though. It continues to move the ball well with Cody Kessler at the helm.
Watchability: 2. The Browns are staying in the fight most weeks, but these two teams’ combined 2–10 record doesn’t really get the juices flowing.
This matchup could come down to the complementary pieces, if the quarterbacks find themselves in as much adversity as the opposing defenses plan. For the Eagles, that means weapons like Darren Sproles, Zach Ertz and even H-back Trey Burton must step to the forefront—with Philadelphia scrambling to help Vaitai in protection last week, it often sacrificed Ertz as a pass-catcher. Minnesota’s puzzle pieces include the aforementioned Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and a resurgent Cordarrelle Patterson, who already has 15 touches on offense this season after seeing a measly four last year.
Watchability index: 9. So far, the Bradford-Wentz fallout has worked out for both sides. I’m sure the Philadelphia fans will treat Bradford with the utmost respect because of ... sorry, couldn’t even get through that sentence. It’s Philly.
It’s the Geno Smith ... uh, “show” is probably not the word we’re looking for here. But whatever you want to call it, Smith is New York’s QB for at least this week—after skulking the sideline Monday night, he replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick late in a loss to Arizona. The Ravens put the kibosh on the only truly mobile quarterback they’ve seen this season: Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, but that came in Week 1 before the Bills decided to start trying. Baltimore now has lost three straight, and starting QB Joe Flacco is dealing with a sore shoulder. If he can’t heave the ball deep, the Ravens’ offense loses like 50% of its play calls. This would be a game to turn it loose, too, because the Jets’ secondary has been a huge trouble spot. In years’ past, Darrelle Revis could be locked onto Breshad Perriman, Steve Smith or Mike Wallace and eliminate one of Baltimore’s threats. But Revis just isn’t that type of defender anymore.
Watchability index: 4. There is a curiosity factor in Smith’s first start. Other than that, the Ravens are trending in the wrong direction and the Jets’ 2016 hopes ended almost before they began.
The Buccaneers kept themselves afloat with a Week 5 Monday night win over the Cam Newton-less Panthers. They’re just one back of Atlanta in the loss column, and the Falcons visit Tampa Bay in two weeks. But the offense still is having more bad weeks than good, even though Jacquizz Rodgers delivered a surprising star turn against Carolina (30 carries, 101 yards). He’ll need to do so again Sunday, because Doug Martin’s out and Jameis Winston can’t find a groove through the air. (If Winston does, keep an eye on emerging slot man Adam Humphries.) The 49ers have the potential to be more dynamic with Colin Kaepernick at QB, but they didn’t exactly go to town on Buffalo in a 45–16 loss. Kaepernick’s accuracy is still scattershot (13 of 29 in his first start), although he did finally get Torrey Smith involved in the offense. Carlos Hyde will join Martin on the sideline Sunday, leaving Mike Davis as the 49ers’s go-to back.
Watchability index: 2. Frankly, I already devoted too many words to this matchup.
The Falcons’ offense has won me over without hesitation. I still came very close to picking the Chargers here, because Philip Rivers will have a 300-yard day against Atlanta’s secondary. There is talent in that Atlanta DB group, led by Desmond Trufant, but Rivers spreads the ball around so much it’s tough to key on any one receiver. TE Hunter Henry has scored in three straight games and draws an athletic, young linebacking group that’s often overmatched in coverage—opposing tight ends have 438 yards and five TDs vs. Atlanta this season. Even with all that in mind, the Falcons’ offense, back at home after two difficult road games, figures to hang quite a few points on the board. As has become the norm, injuries have hindered San Diego, like the season-ender for CB Jason Verrett; Brandon Flowers is questionable with a concussion. No way can San Diego defend the Falcons when they spread the field, at least not on a consistent basis.
Watchability index: 9. If the Chargers had managed to hold on to even one of the four games they let get away, we’d be talking about them as a legitimate playoff contender in the AFC. They’ll give the Falcons a run for their money.
How do you stop Antonio Brown? By not having Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. In the four games Pittsburgh played without Big Ben last year, Brown tumbled below 60 yards receiving per game and did not score a touchdown. Fill-in starting QB Landry Jones did connect with Brown for 124 yards of offense in one of those games, but Jones also fed Martavis Bryant—he’s on a season-long suspension. Jones has yet to show he can expand a passing game, so Le’Veon Bell is in for a massive workload. None of that will matter if the Steelers’ defense fails to turn in an inspired showing against Tom Brady & Co. The Dolphins just reeled off 222 yards rushing against the banged-up Steelers D, which happens to be surrendering nearly 300 yards per game through the air. That Brady-Rob Gronkowski-Martellus Bennett combo might have another field day.
Watchability index: 5. Could have been a 10 with Roethlisberger in the lineup. The Steelers are heavy home ’dogs for good reason without him.
The Seahawks are 17–17 all-time against Arizona, but they’ve won their last two trips to the desert by a combined 71–12. Granted, Ryan Lindley was the Cards’ starter for one of those games, and Carson Palmer sat early last year in Week 17 because Arizona had its playoff positioning locked up. Palmer’s presence, in theory, levels the field, but his team’s offense has shifted away from him and into the arms of RB David Johnson. Seattle’s excellent run defense—not to mention its speed through the linebacking corps—could shift the onus back onto Palmer. Arizona’s own defense perked up against the Jets on Monday. Houston/Tampa Bay castoff D.J. Swearinger has provided yet another athletic, fast-flying body to team with Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu. The question is if it that will be enough against Russell Wilson. Seattle’s QB is on pace for a career high in passing yards this season.
Watchability index: 10. Because of the versatility both defenses have, this will be an entertaining Xs-and-Os slugfest. Can Seattle clean up its communication issues in the secondary?
This is one of those so-called “revenge games,” but for whom? Brock Osweiler received a chance to start in Denver, won a Super Bowl ring and parlayed minimal experience into a massive contract elsewhere. What’s he got to be upset about? On the other hand, current Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was pushed out of Houston during a miserable 2013, despite winning a playoff game in 2011 and again in 2012. If anyone should be a little peeved here, it’s him ... aside from that whole “winning it all in Denver” thing. Neither offense has been all that impressive lately, save for Osweiler’s late eruption to stun Indianapolis. Osweiler, though, was lit up on the road by both New England and Minnesota.
Watchability index: 8. J.J. Watt’s injury and the Broncos’ back-to-back losses have stripped this matchup down, but it’s still an important AFC tilt with subplots you’ll be hearing about all night.
Surprise star of Week 7: Mike Davis, RB, 49ers. Mentioned him above, but the 49ers’s run game has been productive all year. While Carlos Hyde is a big reason why, Davis can churn out yards, too.
Upset of the week: Dolphins (+3) over the Bills. This just feels like a dangerous one for Buffalo, which has won four straight but is likely to be without McCoy and has a huge game in Week 8.
College upset of the week: Navy (+3) over Memphis. Memphis can score in bunches, but it’s hard trouble stopping the run at times. That’s a problem vs. Navy.