- Can the Cowboys turn it around in Philly? Do the Saints even need Dez Bryant? Can Patrick Mahomes get even better? A look at the keys to Sunday’s slate of games
All times Eastern
Cowboys (3-5) at Eagles (4-4) | 8:20 pm | NBC
Some teams don’t even bother trying to run the ball against Philly’s defensive line. Obviously, that won’t—or at least shouldn’t—be the case with the Cowboys. Their offense must flow through Ezekiel Elliott and that O-line, which is underperforming but still imposing. A run-first approach not only features Dallas’s best players, but it also maximizes Dak Prescott, who is at his best executing passing concepts that derive from the running game. Prescott and Dallas’s receivers, even with Amari Cooper on board, are not made to carve up defenses on straight dropback passes. Dallas must employ play-action, bootlegs and, especially against Philly’s corners, downfield routes, which inherently come out of running formations.
Saints (7-1) at Bengals (5-3) | 1 p.m. | Fox
Sean Payton doesn’t know if Dez Bryant will play this week. But what does it matter? Dez Bryant can no longer run and, at this point, is a No. 4-caliber receiver. That’s why he remained unsigned for so long. The Saints lack receiver depth and have two unique weapons who can play the slot in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, so there will be chances for Bryant to get on the field as an No. 3 outside. But by season’s end, don’t be surprised if Bryant falls behind incumbent Austin Carr in the pecking order. As for this week, the much bigger question regarding the Saints’ passing game is, who covers Thomas? The Bengals typically leave Dre Kirkpatrick at left corner and William Jackson at right, though in their last outing, Week 8 against Tampa Bay, they matched the long-armed Kirkpatrick on Mike Evans. Given that it’s risky to play predictable zone coverages against Drew Brees, will we see the Bengals put Kirkpatrick on Thomas and go man-to-man?
Jaguars (3-5) at Colts (3-5) | 1 p.m. | CBS
Indy puts stress on an opponents’ running game by having defensive linemen slant and stunt into different gaps after the snap. Linebackers Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker are excellent playing off their D-linemen in this regard. The approach could challenge a Jags O-line that’s only modestly athletic. Look for Jacksonville to get back to throwing on first down. That will also help Blake Bortles rediscover his comfort zone.
Falcons (4-4) at Browns (2-6-1) | 1 p.m. | Fox
Bruce Irvin’s arrival could help Atlanta’s pass rush in two ways. One: The 31-year-old Irvin still has enough quickness and burst to turn the corner as a pass rusher. Two: With Irvin outside, Takk McKinley could get more snaps inside, where his burst and raw power can be a handful for guards. The few snaps McKinley has played inside have usually come with him aligned next to Vic Beasley. That’s important; Beasley is the type of pass rusher who needs the scheme to create space around him. A power-rusher like McKinley can do that by setting up stunts inside. We’ll see this on display Sunday, as Baker Mayfield, at 6'1", is a QB you want your defensive ends to loop inside against.
Cardinals (2-6) at Chiefs (8-1) | 1 p.m. | CBS
The scary thing about Patrick Mahomes is that every week on film, you see areas where he can improve. His precision accuracy is superb (especially given the weird various arm angles he throws from), but there’s room for more consistency. Same goes for his pocket patience and field vision. Mahomes has a legitimate case for this year’s MVP award. And it’s possible—even probable—that he’ll be better in the second half of the season. Last week he and his receivers capitalized on intermediate passing opportunities when Cleveland played zone coverage. Hosting Arizona, the Chiefs will see a lot of zone coverage again this week.
Patriots (7-2) at Titans (4-4) | 1 p.m. | CBS
If Bill Belichick didn’t think Malcolm Butler was very good heading into Super Bowl 52, you wonder what he thinks now. The odds are almost 100 percent that we’ll see Josh Gordon line up out wide to the offense’s left, where Butler has played most of his snaps this season. In New England, Butler was always better against bang-bang timing plays. Slow-developing routes, which inherently come downfield, sometimes posed problems. That has remained the case this season, though lately, even the quicker-timed plays have posed problems.
Seahawks (4-4) at Rams (8-1) | 4:25 p.m. | CBS
When these teams met back in Week 5, Seattle put sixth offensive lineman George Fant on the field for 20 percent of the snaps. In the three games since, Fant has played more than 25 percent of the snaps. That number could rise to more than 30 percent on Sunday. The Seahawks have become a full-fledged power-running team. That approach keeps the clock moving and L.A.’s high-powered offense off the field.
Lions (3-5) at Bears (5-3) | 1 p.m. | Fox
Bears first-round rookie linebacker Roquan Smith is coming to life. He had the big forced fumble that Eddie Jackson returned for a touchdown early in the Bills game, and, more tellingly, Smith flashed as a gap attacker in run defense. He was beaten in man coverage a couple of times early in that game—once by running back LeSean McCoy in the flats and once by tight end Jason Croom on a crosser. The Bears play straight man coverage about six to 10 times a game; Matthew Stafford will go at Smith on these. On run plays, though, the Lions should try to avoid Smith.
Redskins (5-3) at Buccaneers (3-5) | 1 p.m. | Fox
It might not show this week, because you never know what to expect from Tampa Bay’s up-and-(mostly)-down defensive line, but the season-ending injuries to guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao could be a death blow to Washington. Their mobility outside and power inside are what this Adrian Peterson-led offense was built around.
Dolphins (5-4) at Packers (3-4-1) | 4:25 p.m. | CBS
Green Bay’s defense last week constantly showed Tom Brady one look and then played another. That’s what you must do against Brock Osweiler, who gets very methodical, both mentally and physically, when he’s uncomfortable. Because of that, what you’ll see from Green Bay this week that you didn’t see against Brady are blitzes from those disguised looks.
Chargers (6-2) at Raiders (1-7) | 4:05 p.m. | Fox
Chargers safety Derwin James is one of football’s best blitzers, but the rookie hasn’t been deployed this way as much in recent weeks. Not that Chargers fans should be worried. They’ve have held their last four opponents to under 20 points. The first of those four opponents was Oakland, back in Week 5. L.A. blitzed on just four pass plays in that game.
Bills (2-7) at Jets (3-6) | 1 p.m. | CBS
Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor is little over a week into his Bills career and already has a revenge game on his hands. If Pryor wants to make the Jets sorry for dumping him, he must be better at the top of routes then he was last week against Chicago.
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