- The NFL will be treated to a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday night, with the Seahawks looking to nail a signature win for the 2016 season. Can they pull it off? Chris Burke makes his picks.
The Watchability Index has been a regular feature in our weekly picks—it’s a completely unscientific way of measuring which games are most intriguing each week. Since we’re now past the halfway point of the season, this seems as good a time as any to see which teams have received the most must-see recommendations so far.
(Quick notes on that whole “unscientific” scoring thing: Thursday night games have not been rated, and the Week 8 results had to be tweaked a bit because I used a Halloween-candy rating system. We’re not launching rockets here.)
As you’ll see, the ratings can look a little off-kilter in hindsight due to teams underachieving—the Bengals-Jets game in Week 1, for example, turned out to be less noteworthy than it appeared in early September. Bad matchups also drove down the Watchability Index for, say, any team that has played the Browns or Rams.
The five teams with the highest Watchability thus far:
1. Denver: Not the most exciting team week-to-week in the AFC West (that’d probably be Oakland), but the Broncos’ have had the superior matchups from a viewership perspective—a Super Bowl rematch with Carolina, a visit from the Colts, two with San Diego, the trip to Oakland.
2. Atlanta: This one fits on all levels. The Falcons have been good enough to lead their division, and their games mostly have been of the high-scoring tug-of-war variety.
3. Philadelphia: Carson Wentz’s insertion into the starting lineup, plus a hot 3–0 start, cranked up the rating. (The Eagles’ Week 3 game vs. Pittsburgh scored a perfect 10 on the Index.) Wentz’s team has been drifting back to the pack, although this week’s game is another one of note.
4. Pittsburgh: Again, the matchups plus preseason expectations. Pittsburgh’s Week 2 game with Cincinnati carried potential because of last season’s explosive playoff showdown, and the Steelers also have faced then-unbeaten Philadelphia, Kansas City, New England and rival Baltimore.
5. Arizona: This one’s out of whack for a 3-4-1 team, but the Cardinals have played the Patriots, Seahawks and Panthers. More important to the Watchability tracker is that their game with San Francisco came on Thursday night, thus taking a potential 1 or 2 rating off the table.
Teams that have landed on the other end of the spectrum? San Francisco, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Chicago … no surprises there. The outlier among the bottom five is Miami, which reflects a lack of faith in that team from yours truly, at least over the opening month or so.
Quite a few solid matchups on the slate this week. Let’s get into it.
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Ty Nsekhe, OT, Redskins: The NFL hit standout Washington LT Trent Williams with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, so Nsekhe draws the task of replacing him. A former Arena Football League player, Nsekhe has started two games in his NFL career. He could have drawn an easier opening assignment than the Vikings.
2. Justin Houston, OLB, Chiefs: How long will it take Houston to ramp up to speed, after off-season knee surgery? He long has been a premier pass rusher in the league when he’s healthy. He’ll set his sights on Cam Newton in a tricky road game.
3. Roger Lewis, WR, Giants: Lewis is far less heralded than fellow receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz or Sterling Shepard. He is starting to see more playing time nonetheless—Lewis scored in Week 6 and again in Week 9—and with Victor Cruz (ankle) in jeopardy of missing Monday’s game, that role could increase further.
4. Kyle Emanuel, LB, Chargers: The Chargers have been hammered at injuries at the linebacker position, which last week forced Emanuel to slide form his usual OLB spot inside. He’s likely to be there again Sunday, with Denzel Perryman (hamstring) and Jatavis Brown (knee) both questionable. The Dolphins will test him with RB Jay Ajayi.
• Last week: 8–5 overall (84-48-1 season), 4-7-2 vs. the spread (64-65-5 season)
• Best pick in Week 9: Dolphins 26, Jets 21 (actual score: Dolphins 27–23).
• Worst pick in Week 9: Packers 34, Colts 24 (actual score: Colts 31–26).
Carson Wentz mania, along with the Eagles as a whole, has slowed considerably, as Philadelphia has lost four of their last five. All four of those setbacks during this stretch, though, have come on the road—they’re 3–0 at home this season, including a Week 7 win over Minnesota. To hang with the high-powered Falcons, they’ll need Wentz to settle in early Sunday. The strengths of his offense work to the weaknesses of Atlanta’s D: tight ends (48 catches and six TDs vs. the Falcons this season) and pass-catching backs (a whopping 71 receptions by opposing RBs) have given Dan Quinn’s group problems. The Falcons are keeping a close eye on the health of CB Desmond Trufant, OLB Dwight Freeney and RB Tevin Coleman, all questionable. Coleman’s presence really opens up an already dangerous offense, because of how hard Atlanta works to get him into space vs. linebackers and safeties.
Watchability index (out of 10): 9. This has all the makings of a back-and-forth gem. The key may lie in how well Atlanta’s O-line blocks on the edges.
The Bears can’t win on the road (0–4 this year) and the Bucs can’t win at home (six straight losses dating back to last season), so this could be quite the circus. Jameis Winston (knee) and Mike Evans (concussion) are, for now, expected to suit up Sunday. RB Doug Martin (hamstring), who hasn’t played since Week 2, also has a shot. Tampa Bay almost ran out of running backs last week, so his versatile presence would be welcome. The Bears recently found life in their own run game, when Jordan Howard torched the Vikings. If he gets rolling early Sunday, Tampa Bay and its 27th-ranked pass defense, would be in trouble. When Jay Cutler can dictate the game, he’s still very capable of racking up production.
Watchability index: 2. If Tampa Bay can’t get it done at home here, its coaching staff could be in for a shake-up.
Washington’s offensive output its past three games: 493, 413 and 546 yards. Granted, because of turnovers, defense and the inability to finish drives, those numbers produced a 1-1-1 record, but Kirk Cousins & Co., hit their Week 9 bye in the zone. It’ll be tough to maintain that momentum against Minnesota, even if the Vikings’ defense has looked mortal the past two weeks. RB Robert Kelley replicating his Week 8 success (21 carries for 87 yards and a TD would be a start). And TE Jordan Reed will be a go-to, as always—Eric Ebron just had a big day vs. the Vikings. Minnesota’s offense is in its second week with Pat Shurmur calling plays. The first go-round, in a loss to Detroit, featured an expected increase in short passes designed to mitigate O-line woes. Sam Bradford’s 273 yards were his most since Week 2.
Watchability index: 6. Games like this one, between two teams currently in the playoff picture, loom larger now that we’re in the second half.
I’ve said this before, but I think the Chiefs’ earlier win over the Raiders showed they’re are the most complete team in the AFC West. But one trouble spot? A run defense that is coughing up 4.8 yards per attempt and just allowed 107 yards to Jacksonville’s Chris Ivory. The return of Justin Houston from injury benefits Kansas City in a lot of ways, including here, but that’s still advantage: Carolina. Even though the Rams stifled it last week, this remains a potent and hard-to-defend rushing attack, led by Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers are stingy against the run, too (77.5 yards per game), which means this might be one that Kansas City QB Alex Smith (concussion) has to steal, if he’s cleared to play. Is he capable of doing that, on the road?
Watchability index: 8. Thanks to the Panthers’ current two-game win streak, this has taken on more the feel of an excellent cross-conference clash, as it looked when the schedule’s came out.
The Texans have scored 22 points total in three road losses. Is that at all relevant against a Jaguars team that turns the ball over a ton (17 in eight games) and struggles to stop the run? Certainly, this trip is a cozier one for Houston than its previous stops in New England, Minnesota and Denver. That said, the Texans also were victimized defensively in those prior road losses. The Jaguars’ offense, now under the watch of interim O.C. Nathaniel Hackett, stayed committed to the run in Kansas City last week and produced a 100-yard rusher in Ivory. Both Houston (28th vs. the run) and Jacksonville (24th) have issues in the trenches, so this essentially could boil down to Ivory vs. Lamar Miller. Neither team really trusts its quarterback to throw the ball.
Watchability index: 4. A Texans loss would turn the AFC South into at least a three-horse race. Jacksonville still would not be one of those horses.
Fire up the fantasy QBs. Not that you’d normally sit Aaron Rodgers anyway, but this shapes up as a let-it-fly day for both he and Marcus Mariota. The former has been throwing the ball a ton, with the Packers’ run game injury-depleted—Rodgers has averaged 44.8 passing attempts the past five weeks. The Titans recently watched Andrew Luck, Cody Kessler and Blake Bortles throw for 300-plus yards in consecutive games; Philip Rivers would have gotten there, as well, had Melvin Gordon not eviscerated Tennessee’s defense. The Titans’ DeMarco Murray-Derrick Henry tandem is almost impossible to shut down entirely, but Green Bay does still have the league’s top-ranked run defense. Mariota wants to avoid third-and-long, so he could look to Murray and Delanie Walker as receivers on early downs.
Watchability index: 7. This isn’t college football so appearances don’t matter all that much, but Mariota still could use a signature win. He’ll need yeoman’s work from his defense to get it done.
The Rams barely even pretend that they want to get Todd Gurley involved these days, as evidenced by his average of 13.7 attempts the past three games (all losses, mind you). Save for a trip to Arizona, the Jets have been tough to run on—even last week, it took the Dolphins’ complete focus on establishing Jay Ajayi for them to get going. This, then, is not likely to be a Gurley breakout. Which means all eyes are on Case Keenum and ... well, you know. If he has any success, figure it to be on a home-run ball or two to Kenny Britt. Ryan Fitzpatrick (knee) is planning to play for the Jets, but how long will he last? He’ll again be without starting center Nick Mangold (ankle), and Aaron Donald will be lurking across the line. Can he find Brandon Marshall or Quincy Enunwa downfield even once to open up this game?
Watchability index: 1. The Rams’ offense is visual Xanax, and the Jets are already 4.5 games out of first in the AFC East.
With Aqib Talib (back) out of the Denver lineup last week, Derek Carr took aim early and often at Bradley Roby to get the ball rolling on Oakland’s win. The Broncos hope to have Kayvon Webster (hamstring) in the lineup, but Talib’s a no-go. So how do they stop Drew Brees? Even against a full-strength secondary, the Saints’ aerial attack is a headache because of how Brees spreads the football—during an ongoing two-game win streak, Willie Snead, Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks and Coby Fleener all have seen more than 10 targets. Denver’s D-line also got buried at the point of attack in Oakland, so New Orleans will probe there with RBs Tim Hightower and Mark Ingram. The good news for the Broncos is that New Orleans probably cannot cover them, either. While the run game remains a mystery (33 yards vs. Oakland), QB Trevor Siemian has the luxury of that Emmanuel Sanders-Demaryius Thomas combo outside.
Watchability index: 8. A win over San Francisco didn’t tell us much about the Saints. Get this one, though, and the playoff sprint is on.
Just mentioned above the Dolphins’ resolve to feed Jay Ajayi these days. It worked against Pittsburgh, Buffalo and (eventually) the Jets. San Diego’s top-five rush defense will be the latest challenge, although the Chargers have given up 13 TDs on the ground (fourth most in the NFL). Limiting what they need from Ryan Tannehill will be the Dolphins’ main focus again—the Chargers have forced a turnover in all nine of their games and have six multi-turnover outings. Quietly, bolstered by Ajayi’s ability to help control the clock, Miami’s pass defense has allowed fewer than 200 yards in four consecutive games. If that streak gets to five, the Dolphins could roll. Don’t bet on it. Philip Rivers keeps plugging along, and he is getting more and more help from second-year RB Melvin Gordon (416 total yards from scrimmage in Weeks 8 and 9).
Watchability index: 6. The Cowboys-Steelers showdown is the late-block showcase, but this is a fine backup choice.
In what could be classified as an interesting development, Colin Kaepernick threw for 391 yards last week. Of course, those yards came against New Orleans’ NFL-worst pass defense and because the 49ers were behind big. RB Carlos Hyde (shoulder) could return Sunday—he and Kaepernick have played together just once this season, vs. Buffalo. So, perhaps life will be a little more trying than initially expected for the Cardinals’ defense. The offense, on the other hand, should carve through San Francisco like a chainsaw through a pumpkin. The 49ers have allowed a combined 810 yards rushing in their past three games. David Johnson’s career high of 187 yards, set last season vs. Philadelphia, is very much on notice.
Watchability index: 2. Unless you live in Arizona or the San Francisco area, you don’t have to worry about it.
Let’s just get this out of the way: The Pittsburgh Steelers of last week, or of a Week 6 loss to Miami, won’t beat Dallas. The Steelers as they can be—or at least, as they appear on paper—have the offensive chops to pull it off. The first-place Cowboys are still shorthanded in the secondary, without Morris Claiborne (groin) and Barry Church (forearm). An improved, surprising pass rush has helped offset those losses, but they cannot match the Steelers’ weapons if Ben Roethlisberger has time. Pittsburgh was far too conservative in last week’s loss to Baltimore, in which Roethlisberger returned early from a knee injury. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley should have Big Ben firing at will Sunday, assuming the QB is healthy enough to do so. No mystery when Dallas has the ball: Ezekiel Elliott, quick passes and maybe a couple shots downfield. That plan has produced 400-plus yards of offense in six consecutive games.
Watchability index: 9. Aside from possibly a Week 14 trip to New York, the Cowboys stand to be favored in every game they have left after Sunday. If the Steelers can’t slow them down, can anyone?
For one night, at least, the NFL won’t have to worry about its ratings. A Super Bowl XLIX rematch (and potential Super Bowl LI preview) closes Sunday’s action, but the question is: Can the Seahawks rise to the occasion? They’re on a short week, for starters, after Monday’s touch-and-go win over the Bills. They also still cannot run the ball even a little, so Russell Wilson has to carry over his Week 9 performance (282 yards passing, three total TDs in Week 9). The biggest piece of news on Seattle’s side is that Kam Chancellor (groin) is expected back after a four-game absence. That’s huge across the board for the Seahawks’ defense, but especially so from a communication standpoint—it’s been a running theme for the secondary to have coverage breakdowns when Chancellor is absent. This will be the best defense Tom Brady has faced since his return from suspension, and one that could because of scheme and personnel have a shot vs. the Martellus Bennett-Rob Gronkowski combo. But who knows where the Patriots will go. Two weeks of preparation left Bill Belichick a long time to game plan for this one.
Watchability index: 10. The Seahawks could put to rest any concerns about their chances by winning in Foxborough. They’ll have to be near perfect.
Cincinnati’s secondary has not performed up to expectations this season, but the overall pass defense is not far off its 2014 or ’15 showing. Where the Bengals really have taken a defensive step back is against the run—they rank 23rd this year after a seventh-place finish last year. Lucky for them, that means next to nothing against a one-dimensional New York offense. Stop Eli Manning, stop the Giants. But good luck stopping Eli Manning at home. He still throws more interceptions than is ideal (six at MetLife Stadium in 2016), but he’s also fired eight touchdowns his past two home outings. Odell Beckham Jr., of course, is the primary target. The off-season addition of DT Damon Harrison has made the Giants far tougher to run on, meaning Cincinnati will have to commit to that aspect of its game plan. Tyler Eifert’s return has taken some heat off A.J. Green, at least in the red zone.
Watchability index: 7. We usually get an idea early of what type of Giants game it will be—is the O-line protecting Manning or not?
Surprise star of Week 10: Richard Rodgers, TE, Packers (and/or Jared Cook, if he plays). The Titans have had trouble keeping opposing tight ends out of the end zone. Aaron Rodgers isn’t one to overlook a potential matchup advantage.
Upset of the week: Jaguars (+1.5) over the Texans. Laid a lot of chalk in this week’s picks. Minor upset here, as the Jaguars keep pounding the run game as they did last Sunday and force Brock Osweiler into a few mistakes.
College upset of the week: Vanderbilt (+3.5) over Missouri. Shoutout to NFL editor Eric Single, who remains convinced that his 4-5 Commodores are getting to a bowl game. They have to have this one over 2-7 Missouri. Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham will be a coveted prospect come to the 2017 draft.