New and exciting teams have seized control at the top of the NFL, but the collateral damage of that upheaval has been a slate of lackluster prime-time games. For the most part, the teams the networks thought would be good have struggled, so the nighttime schedule has, more often than not, been pretty dire. This week features the Giants playing the Broncos on Sunday night—a game with just a few reasons to watch. Among them: Shots of Ben McAdoo looking at his play sheet as you think about how Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie bailed on the team because he was feuding with the coaching staff and how the head coach bungled the aftermath in every way imaginable. McAdoo also said he’s “not interested” in the idea that he’s lost his team—which is something you say only when you’ve actually lost your team.
Anyway, that’s Sunday’s prime-time game. The next night features Colts-Titans. Andrew Luck probably won’t play, and Marcus Mariota won’t, either. You might want to watch baseball that night if there is any, although Matt Cassel–Jacoby Brissett is just like baseball. (Hint: not fun!)
Luckily, the NFL always finds a way to entertain us. There are a bunch of exciting games this weekend, just not the ones we would’ve expected before the season began. Since some of the established teams find themselves in peril so early in the season, we have two competing themes in the NFL at the moment: Up-and-coming, too-good-to-be-true underdogs trying to prove themselves and been-good-for-years squads trying to prove they still belong. There is a lot at stake, so let’s run through the three stake-iest matchups of the weekend:
Los Angeles Rams at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Rams and Jaguars are playing the game of the week. Repeat: The Rams and Jaguars are playing the game of the week. After Sunday, these teams will, barring a tie, combine for as many wins as they had all of last season with seven. If Los Angeles wins, a few things happen—first of all, it’ll leapfrog Seattle in the division. But more importantly, if Jared Goff can throw on this secondary, it might be his best act as a pro quarterback. He’ll have to make throws to win, but expect a lot of Todd Gurley as well. Despite the Jags’ ferocious defensive line, you can run on them. Jacksonville is allowing the most yards per rushing attempt in the NFL with 5.4, and some of the Jags’ worst holes match up with Gurley’s best. Look for a lot of runs wide and to the right.
New England Patriots at New York Jets
There’s a supervolcano at Yellowstone Park that could wipe out life on Earth and may erupt sooner than we previously thought. This, obviously, is a problem, but it would be made moot if the Jets were to win on Sunday and end the world. The Jets have beaten the Patriots before, but a victory this weekend would mean that this Jets team, the one widely expected to tank, would be ahead in the standings and maybe, at least for now, better than the defending world champion and perennially awesome Patriots, who now own one of the worst defenses on the planet. I think the Patriots win here, but it won’t be the joke game we thought it would be a month ago. I’m not exactly in on this Jets team, but I believe they can exploit the Patriots defense for reasons that are pretty clear: That is an easy thing to do.
If the Jets win, it’s a disaster for the Patriots, and it’s time for some serious soul-searching. If the Patriots win? We’ll say, “Well, of course they won; they are the Patriots.” The Patriots need to do a few things: They need to keep Brady—who is already one hit shy of his 2016 total—from getting hit. And they need to stop the freaking Jets from moving the ball. The Jets’ wins have not been against the most talented of opponents: They beat the Browns, Jaguars, and Dolphins—three teams we’re not totally sure about. But at the very least, the Jets have shown they can be a competent team on both sides of the ball on three separate occasions. The Patriots are significantly better than the Jets, and I feel very strongly that the Pats will win the division, but their defense has held an opponent under 20 points only once this season—and that was a Bucs team that was vomiting all over themselves. I’d like to see the Pats do it again before I can feel confident.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
The undefeated Chiefs, perhaps the NFL’s best team at the moment, still have a few questions to answer, and the Steelers will help them. They struggle to stop the run, particularly on first down (they trail only the Patriots, Jaguars, and Chargers in this category). It’s a good thing, then, that Le’Veon Bell is coming to help test this.
This is a matchup of two of the top running backs in yards per game in league history—Kareem Hunt vs. Bell. The difference is that the Chiefs keep feeding Hunt the ball and the Steelers haven’t used Bell enough. The Chiefs are probably going to go to the ground a lot on Sunday, since the Steelers have the league’s 28th-ranked rush defense. There’s not that much else the Chiefs have to prove. They already dismantled the Patriots on the road to start the season, but a win over another preseason AFC favorite wouldn’t hurt.
On the other hand, the Steelers need a win over anyone. They are 3-2, same as the Jets, Rams, Jaguars, Bills, and Seahawks, but the difference with Pittsburgh is that there seems to be a gloom over the Steelers at the moment. The good news is that no one in the AFC North looks particularly good, so they could still back into a playoff spot, but to have any shot at playing deep into the postseason, they need to start looking like the juggernaut we all expected them to be. They do not look, at the moment, as talented as the Jaguars, Rams, or Alex Smith’s Chiefs. Maybe it’s time for the supervolcano.
And now onto this week’s picks:
Home Team in CAPS, my selection in BOLD
TEXANS -9 Browns
Patriots -9 JETS
FALCONS -13.5 Dolphins
SAINTS -4.5 Lions
Packers -3 VIKINGS
RAVENS -6 Bears
REDSKINS -10.5 49ers
JAGUARS -2.5 Rams
Buccaneers -1.5 CARDINALS
CHIEFS -4 Steelers
RAIDERS -3.5 Chargers
BRONCOS -10.5 Giants
Last Week: 7-4 | Overall: 38-31-1