New York Giants (3-3) at Los Angeles Rams (3-3)
SERIES HISTORY: 41st regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 25-15. The Giants won the last six meetings, their last loss to the Rams coming in 2001 on a 15-14 decision in a game played in St. Louis. The two teams have met twice in the post season; that series is tied 1-1.
KEYS TO THE GAME: With the Rams No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, quarterback Jared Goff, still not starting, former undrafted QB Case Keenum is taking advantage of his opportunity. Last week, Keenum completed 27 of 32 passes (84.4 percent) for 321 yards and three TDs for 126.7 rating. He managed 1oo-plus ratings in two of last three games. On the flip side of Rams surprises, RB Todd Gurley has been a disappointment after a great rookie season. Still, he has three TDs in the last four games.
The Rams have played well enough to win their last two games, but the scoreboard obviously tells a different story. Their inability to play consistently on both sides of the ball at the same time - and careless penalties - doomed them. To beat the Giants and return home with their heads above water, the Rams must create an offensive and defensive balance in which both units can rely on each other. That means the offense creating a run game that can help run clock to protect leads, and a defense that can consistently get the Giants off the field on third downs, especially late in games.
Last week, the Giants got lucky in that the Ravens defense didn't really deploy a lot of two-high safety sets to stop the passing game.
This week, that will probably change. With the Giants rushing game, currently ranked 30th in the NFL with its 70.6 yards per game average, struggling, don't expect them to have a breakout day against the Rams despite allowing 115.7 yards per game on the ground.
That Rams defensive front, led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, is no pushover when it comes to runs between the tackles, plus the Giants have yet to show that they have the horses to exploit the edges against a defense.
Assuming the Giants running game doesn't function yet again, don't be surprised if they face more two-high safety sets. If they do, they will need to exploit the middle of the field with slants and crossing routes.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Giants Offensive Line vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald. The Rams' talented 3-technique defensive lineman, Donald quietly developed into one of the best interior defenders in the league. He was not happy after the Rams didn't register a sack against the Detroit Lions and will be especially motivated to change that vs. Giants OG Justin Pugh who is playing the best football of his career in his fourth season. Look for the Rams to move Donald around to get ideal matchups, with a good number of those against the right guard John Jerry and right tackle Bobby Hart.
--Giants CB Janoris Jenkins vs. Rams WR Kenny Britt. Britt is coming off a huge seven-catch, 136-yard performance last week against the Lions, a game that the Rams lost. With 30 catches for 492 yards, he'll likely match up against Jenkins, who has been exceptional in coverage for the Giants, leading the team in passes defensed (7) and interceptions (2). If the Giants can stop the run, they stand a good chance of minimizing the damage done by the Rams passing game.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Rams WR Kenny Britt. He is enjoying a breakout year and leads the team in receiving yards (492) and receptions (30). Britt is averaging 82 yards per game and 16.4 yards per reception, which is the 13th-best average through six games and is developing an obvious chemistry with QB Case Keenum.
INJURY REPORT: New York Giants -- Out: S Nat Berhe (concussion), T Marshall Newhouse (calf), S Darian Thompson (foot). Questionable: LS Zak DeOssie (ankle). Los Angeles -- Out: DT Michael Brockers (thigh), CB Trumaine Johnson (ankle). Doubtful: G Jamon Brown (hand), WR Nelson Spruce (calf). Questionable: DE William Hayes (ankle), DE Robert Quinn (shoulder).
FAST FACTS: In the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, the Giants selected WR Odell Beckham Jr. 12th and the Rams took DL Aaron Donald 13th. Since then, each player was selected to two Pro Bowls is known for being disruptive, each in his own way. In his rookie year, the Rams got a little extra physical with Beckham following some of his showboating antics. Things turned ugly when Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree tried to rough up Beckham on the Giants sideline, which created a brawl resulting in the ejection of now former Giants players Damontre Moore and Preston Parker."
PREDICTION: The Rams are getting more than expected from QB Case Keenum and less from second-year RB Todd Gurley. If they can get more from the latter, then Keenum might get even more comfortable. Still, the Rams wish they didn't lose CB Janoris Jenkins in free agency to the Giants. They could use him to cover Odell Beckham Jr. in London Sunday. Instead, he will try to shut down their top WR Kenny Britt. Key may be ability of Rams to get Gurley rolling.
OUR PICK: Rams, 28-17.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Paul Brown Stadium. TV: CBS, Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots.
SERIES HISTORY: 86th regular-season meeting. Bengals lead series, 46-39, and have won the past three meetings. Cincinnati is 28-15 as the home team. During Marvin Lewis' tenure as coach, the Bengals are 18-8 against Cleveland, including a 10-3 mark at home.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson faces his former team on Sunday. Jackson served as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator the past two seasons and they miss him. The Bengals rank 29th in the league in scoring and have struggled in the red zone. In order to maintain their postseason hopes and avoid being the Browns' first victim, the Bengals need to convert on their red-zone opportunities which has been a struggle for them all year.
If veteran cornerback Joe Haden blankets A.J. Green, look for big days from Brandon LaFell or Tyler Boyd. The Bengals will try to get their running game going against Cleveland which ranks 28th against the rush.
The Browns gained yardage in short passes early in the season, but might turn to a more vertical attack against the Bengals. Cincinnati has allowed 14 passing touchdowns, which ranks near the bottom of the league.
Rookie Browns QB Cody Kessler seems to be getting a grasp on his job, but how well the vertical attack could work might depend on the health of Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is bothered by a hamstring injury and did not practice Wednesday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Browns CB Joe Haden vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green. There's no lack of familiarity here as these two AFC North rivals are accustomed to going at it twice per season. Haden has had success against Green and is tied for the Browns' team-lead with two interceptions.
--Browns WR Terrelle Pryor vs. the Bengals defense. Browns coach Hue Jackson has a knack for putting players in position to succeed and he's created a weapon in Pryor who leads the team in receiving yards, catches and touchdowns.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict. This always-controversial veteran is under scrutiny for acts last week that many believe would result in his being suspended. But he was not. During Sunday's loss at New England, Burfict hit Patriots' tight end Martellus Bennett below the knees when he misread a Tom Brady pump-fake, then later appeared to stomp on the leg of running back LaGarrette Blount. Burfict was not flagged for those plays. League sources reportedly fined Burfict $75,000 for his actions but there was no suspension. Burfict was suspended the first three games of this season for repeated violations of rules pertaining to player safety. Coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday that a video showing Burfict's purported stomp on Blount was inconclusive. "I don't think he did anything wrong," said Lewis. "I don't think he meant to do anything. We were not in the wrong, here, in my opinion."
FAST FACTS: The Browns defense ranks 30th in the league in red zone defense with 16 touchdowns allowed in 22 inside the 20 situations. ... The Bengals are averaging 18.2 points per game, which ranks 29th in the league. A contributing factor is they settled for nine field goals on 19 trips inside the red zone. ... Bengals QB Andy Dalton has led the league in passing yards each of the last three weeks.
INJURY REPORT: Cleveland -- Out: CB Marcus Burley (hamstring), WR Corey Coleman (hand), TE Seth DeValve (knee), QB Josh McCown (left shoulder). Doubtful: CB Joe Haden (groin). Questionable: DE Xavier Cooper (shoulder), WR Terrelle Pryor (hamstring), TE Randall Telfer (ankle). Cincinnati -- Questionable: TE Tyler Eifert (back, ankle).
PREDICTION: It is tempting to pick the Browns in an upset, but that backfired already once this season. Dalton is hot and the Browns have not learned how to win, despite playing well enough to do so at times.
OUR PICK: Bengals, 32-24.
Washington Redskins (4-2) at Detroit Lions (3-3)
SERIES HISTORY: 41st regular-season meeting. Redskins lead series, 27-13. The Lions have won the last three regular-season games, including 27-20 in 2013. The most historic matchup came in the 1991 NFC Championship Game, when the Lions lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions, 41-10.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Lions followed a familiar script during their two-game winning streak: Trust Matthew Stafford on offense and hold on for dear life (and get a late-game turnover) on defense. This week promises to be another shootout, where the Lions will lean heavily on Stafford's arm to nickel-and-dime their way downfield.
Defensively, the Lions will have their hands full with one of the more balanced passing games in the NFL. They need to get pressure on Kirk Cousins, and they can't let DeSean Jackson get open deep.
The Redskins were the team that once couldn't get off the field. After three games, opponents were converting 57.5 percent of third-down attempts. That was an astounding 10.5 percentage points behind the Lions (47 percent), who ranked 31st at the time.
Washington has become much better in that area (45 percent). Detroit has gone in the opposite direction (49.3 percent). That gives the Redskins' potent offense, ranked sixth in the NFL in yards per game (387.2), an obvious weakness to attack. The Lions have the worst interception rate in the NFL (1.46 percent).
Having defensive end Ziggy Ansah back healthy for the second week in a row will help Detroit. But the Redskins don't give up many sacks, either. Only Oakland has allowed fewer per pass attempt than Washington.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Lions WR Marvin Jones vs. Redskins CB Josh Norman. Jones ranks among the top 10 in the NFL in most receiving categories, but he found things tough going last week as the Rams, minus their best cornerback, routinely rolled coverage his way. Norman is one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, and Washington has used him both shadowing top receivers and playing exclusively on the left side.
--Redskins TE Jordan Reed vs. Lions LB Kyle Van Noy. Reed leads Washington with 33 catches (third among NFL tight ends) for 316 yards. He's a difficult matchup, and the Lions have struggled defending the position this year, allowing seven touchdowns. Reed is in the NFL's concussion protocol; but, if he's cleared, he could give Van Noy fits in nickel packages.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Lions RB Dwayne Washington. Washington is expected back this week after missing the last two games with a sprained ankle. The rookie seventh-round pick returned to practice last Friday and could have played against the Rams, but the Lions chose to give him a few extra days of rest in order to ensure his health. Theo Riddick hasn't practiced in more than a week because of his own ankle sprain, which means Washington could play as the Lions' lead back this week. He has shown bits of explosiveness, scoring on a kick return and a long run in the preseason, and is averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
INJURY REPORT: Washington -- Out: TE Jordan Reed (concussion). Questionable: WR DeSean Jackson (shoulder). Detroit -- Out: TE Eric Ebron (ankle, knee), LB DeAndre Levy (quadriceps, knee), DT Haloti Ngata (shoulder), RB Theo Riddick (ankle), T Corey Robinson (ankle). Questionable: DE Ezekiel Ansah (ankle), G Larry Warford (groin), RB Dwayne Washington (ankle), LB Tahir Whitehead (abdomen).
FAST FACTS: Washington has won four straight since an 0-2 start. ... WR Jamison Crowder scored in Week 6 and has four TDs (three receiving, one punt return) in the past five games. ... TE Vernon Davis scored his first TD for Washington last week. He had two TD catches in his last game vs. Detroit (2012 with San Francisco). ... Washington LB Ryan Kerrigan had two sacks in Week 6 and has 4.5 sacks in the past six games. ... Lions QB Matthew Stafford passed for 270 yards and four TDs in Week 6, his 10th game with at least four TDs. He has a 100-plus rating in seven of the past nine home games. ... Detroit DE Ezekiel Ansah had two sacks and a forced fumble in the last meeting. He has 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in his past eight home games.
PREDICTION: These teams are about as evenly matched as you can get, but the Redskins have a lot of momentum and have figured out how to win on the road.
OUR PICK: Redskins, 27-24.
SERIES HISTORY: 8th meeting, Jaguars lead all-time series 4-3, with the Raiders winning the last meeting on Sept. 15, 2013, 19-9 at the Coliseum. Terrelle Pryor passed for 126 yards and the Raiders rushed for 226 yards, including 229 by Darren McFadden. In their last game at Jacksonville and then-coach Jack Del Rio, the Raiders lost 38-31 after holding a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Raiders are smarting on both sides of the ball after a home loss to the Chiefs and will look to re-assert a running game especially if Latavius Murray has recovered from turf toe. From there, they WILL trust QB Derek Carr against the Jacksonville secondary, watching closely to see who is matched up on Amari Cooper and if Jalen Ramsey will get him one-on-one.
Actually both teams should have the same goal: Run the ball and stay away from the costly penalties.
Every week the Jaguars talk about how important it is to have a stout running game complement the passing attack. But four of the five weeks talk is all it was. Only in the Indianapolis game when they rushed for 136yards did the Jaguars rushed for more than 60 yards in a game. If they can't gain yardage on the ground against a porous Oakland defense that ranks third from last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed AND rushing yards per attempt, the Jaguars may not be able to run the ball on any team this year.
The Raiders rank last in total yards allowed per game yards per play heading into Week 7 of the NFL schedule. Jacksonville will make every attempt to have T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory be integral parts of the offensive game plan for Sunday.
Both teams rank among the most-penalized teams in the NFL this year. Whoever can avoid the major penalties (i.e. pass interference, personal fouls, etc.) will have the best chance of willing this game
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Raiders WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree vs. Jaguars secondary. The Raiders have not had much success in running the ball which means a large portion of the offense will need to come from Cooper and Crabtree. Cooper, in just his second year in the league, is having an outstanding season and is second in the AFC with 585 yards, just 21 behind Cincinnati's A.J. Green. A year ago Cooper and Crabtree combined for 156 receptions and eight yards shy of 2,000 receiving yards to go with 15 touchdowns. Jaguar cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, Prince Amukamara and Aaron Colvin will alternate in covering the two elusive Raider receivers. Ramsey had a strong second half against the Bear's Alshon Jeffery last week and came up with a big fourth down stop late in the game when he knocked a pass away from Jeffery. Colvin was also solid last week in his first week of action after missing the team's first four games due to a league-imposed suspension.
--Jaguars offensive tackles Jeremy Parnell and Kelvin Beachum vs. Oakland defensive ends Khalil Mack and Denico Autry. How well the two Jaguars tackles contain the two Raiders defensive ends will likely go a long way in determining the outcome of this game. Mack is one of the elite players in the league and is the cornerstone of the defense. He's a standout run defender and one of the top edge players in the game. Autry missed the offseason following a wrist injury but has been dominant since getting back on the field. Beachum missed the team's third game this year with a concussion but has been solid when he's in the lineup in protecting Blake Bortles' blind side. Parnell has done an adequate job as well though he's been flagged for several penalties. Keeping the two Raider defenders away from Bortles and opening holes for running backs T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory could result in a Jaguars win.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Raiders TE Clive Walford. He has 15 receptions for 150 yards and appears to be recovered from a knee injury that cost him a game in Week 4. He caught a 20-yard pass to set up a field goal late in the first half against Kansas City but had only one other reception. Getting Walford the ball four or more times could loosen up things for the Raiders trio of wide receivers, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Seth Roberts.
INJURY REPORT: Oakland -- Doubtful: G Vadal Alexander (ankle). Questionable: G Jon Feliciano (calf), C Rodney Hudson (knee), G Gabe Jackson (knee), RB Taiwan Jones (knee), RB Latavius Marray (toe), S Brynden Trawick (shoulder), T Menelik Watson (calf). Jacksonville -- Questionable: T Kelvin Beachum (knee), DE Jared Odrick (hip), TE Neal Sterling (foot), TE Julius Thomas (ankle).
FAST FACTS: Raiders QB Derek Carr threw one TD last week, his 12th consecutive game with a scoring toss. That streak is tied for the fourth longest by a Raider all-time, and is the longest since Rich Gannon had a 19-game streak spanning the 2001 and 2002 seasons. The only two players with a longer active such streak are Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers, who have each thrown a touchdown pass in 14 straight games in which they played. ... Jags QB Blake Bortles put together a 4-play 78-yard drive with the Jaguars down, 16-10, with less than five minutes left to play at Chicago last week, hitting Arrelious Benn on a 51-yard score for a 17-16 lead and, eventually, the win. That was Bortles' sixth game winning drive of his career but only his second on the road.
PREDICTION: The term "home" is problematic for both the Raiders' franchise, which may move to Las Vegas, and on the field, where their most recent loss was against long-time AFC-West foe Kansas City last week. But these Raiders are hot on the road and if they regain a running game it should help keep their generous defense on the sideline.
OUR PICK: Raiders, 35-21.
SERIES HISTORY: 11th regular-season meeting between these teams and the series is tied at 5 victories each. They last met in the 2012 season, when the Chiefs won at the Superdome 27-24. That was one of only two winning efforts Kansas City had that year. The last time the teams met at Arrowhead Stadium, the Saints left town with a 30-20 victory in 2008. New Orleans is 3-1 in Kansas City. They've met just three times in the last 18 seasons.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Saints top the NFL with 335.4 passing yards per game after they finished with a net 460 yards in last Sunday's 41-38 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Yet, it wouldn't be surprising to see them try to establish the run early in Sunday's game with the Chiefs. The Chiefs rank 24th in the league against the run in allowing 116.6 yards per game, while they are 12th against the pass in giving up 236.6 yards a game. The Saints show an ability to run the ball at times, but usually don't have to because of the passing game. This could be the perfect opportunity to boost their 78.0 yards per game output on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints are still near the bottom of the NFL stats in most defensive categories. They rank 31st in total yards allowed (419.4) and against the pass (301.6) and they're 26th against the run (117.8). While they have endured injury after injury, they allowed only seven touchdown passes after giving up an NFL-record 45 a year ago.
The Saints know the key against the Chiefs is tightening up the run defense a little. The Chiefs' Spencer Ware, who has filled in nicely for an injured Jamaal Charles with 415 yards and a 5.3 average, is coming off a 131-yard performance against the Oakland Raiders. Yet, the Saints may also have to contend with Charles, who continues to make his way back from a knee injury.
The Chiefs have been on a roller coaster that bottomed out in a 29-point pounding by Pittsburgh nearly three weeks ago. But last Sunday in Oakland, the Chiefs dominated a Raiders team that was previously 4-1.
To maintain success, the Chiefs must present a balanced offense, giving the running game the chance to kill the clock and peck out some big plays. Defensively, K.C. was torched by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, but then handled Oakland's Derek Carr fairly well.
Drew Brees and his talented group of wide receivers can be a potent bunch. The Chiefs need pressure on Brees and the best performance of the season from their secondary.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Chiefs RBs Jamaal Charles, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West vs. Saints defensive front seven led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. Andy Reid fields a three-headed animal with his running game thanks to Charles, Ware and West. All three have different styles and all three are very productive when healthy, not only as runners, but receivers. The Chiefs are No. 14 in the NFL this week with an average of 108.8 rushing yards per game. New Orleans is the 26th-ranked run defense, allowing an average of 117.8 yards per game. The Kansas City offense only works when it's balanced and the run game can protect quarterback Alex Smith and the passing game. Jordan and Laurinaitis both have 24 tackles on the season.
--Saints WRs Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas vs. Chiefs LCB Marcus Peters. Drew Brees and his outside receivers are going to have their work cut out for them against Peters, who has already ascended to the upper tier of cover cornerbacks in the league in less than 11/2 seasons. Peters has 13 interceptions in 21 regular-season games with five picks in five outings this season -- getting two each in Weeks 2 and 3. Peters also had an interception in the playoffs last year, giving him a total of 14 in just 23 games. So the Saints will have to be creative to try and pick their spots in challenging Peters.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chiefs CB Marcus Peters. In five games, Peters has five interceptions to lead the league. In 23 regular and postseason games, the second-year corner has 14 interceptions, the best start ever in the NFL. He faces quite a challenge this Sunday going up against QB Drew Brees, one of the league's most accurate and experienced passers. Brees has thrown four picks in five games, but that doesn't slow down the Saints offense and willingness to throw the ball. Whether he sees coverage on Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead or rookie Michael Thomas, Peters will get a chance for his sixth interception; it's important that the K.C. defense finds a way to contain Brees and his receiving corps if they expect to win the game.200 or so words on somebody for some reason, try not to duplicate a matchup subject.
INJURY REPORT: New Orleans -- Out: LB Stephone Anthony (hamstring), CB Delvin Breaux (fibula), LB Dannell Ellerbe (quadricep), RB Daniel Lasco (hamstring), CB Sterling Moore (abdomen), T Andrus Peat (groin). Questionable: T Terron Armstead (knee), DE Paul Kruger (back). Kansas City -- Questionable: RB Jamaal Charles (knee), CB Phillip Gaines (knee).
FAST FACTS: Saints RB Mark Ingram is averaging 109 scrimmage yards per game in past six against AFC teams. Last week TE Coby Fleener caught ten passes for 74 yards, TD and added first career rushing TD. ... Chiefs QB Alex Smith started four games against New Orleans during his 11-year career, posting a 1-3 record. Smith's only victory over the Saints was in the 2011 playoffs when he threw three touchdown passes, sending San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game. He lost starts with the 49ers against New Orleans in 2006, 2007 and 2010. Overall in those four games, Smith threw six touchdowns and five interceptions. Chiefs are shooting for ninth consecutive win at home.
PREDICTION: These Chiefs are getting into stride and are being overlooked in conversations about top teams in the NFL, probably because they are in the same division with Denver and Oakland. But the Chiefs could be ready for another hot streak.
OUR PICK: Chiefs, 38-28.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium. TV: CBS, Tom McCarthy, Adam Archuleta, Kevin Manuel
SERIES HISTORY: 101st regular season meeting. Miami leads, 57-42-1. Buffalo won the last meeting, 33-17. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins had eight receptions for 168 yards, and Karlos Williams (110 yards rushing) and LeSean McCoy (112 yards) crushed the Dolphins defense. The Bills swept the two games last season, have won four of the last five and are 6-2 against Miami in the last four years.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Bills coach Rex Ryan called his offense "boring" this week, but it wasn't a shot at the unit. Buffalo arrives in South Florida with the league's top-ranked ground game and a plus-eight turnover margin. That is a winning formula, even if the passing game ranks 31st and lacks any real pop minus injured wideout Sammie Watkins. QB Tyrod Taylor has thrown only two picks on the season and relies on moving the chains in short-yardage situations. The Bills are more than happy to play a field position game, which puts the onus on Miami's run defense to flip the script. However, McCoy left Wednesday's practice with a tight hamstring, leaving his status uncertain and Mike Gillislee as the potential lead back Sunday.
The Dolphins' passing game has yet to get untracked under new coach Adam Gase, but the much-maligned offensive line did clear the way for RB Jay Ajayi to rush for more than 200 yards against Pittsburgh last week. With QB Ryan Tannehill entering with seven interceptions against six touchdowns as he has been sacked 17 times (despite none last week), Miami might have to beat Buffalo at its own game. The Bills are allowing only 17.2 points per game and enter with six interceptions on the season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Bills ground game vs. Dolphins run defense. Miami allowed "only" 128 rushing yards to Pittsburgh, which is well below the average of 147.0 yards per game the Dolphins are giving up on average per game to rank 31st in the NFL. The defensive front tends to struggle with maintaining gap integrity, which is exactly what McCoy is adept at exploiting. Buffalo enters the game leading the league in rushing, paced by McCoy's 587 yards. Gillislee is averaging 6.8 yards with a pair of touchdowns on 17 carries, with Jonathan Williams and Reggie Bush factoring into the mix if McCoy is out.
--Dolphins offensive line vs. Bills defensive line. Buffalo has been more physical in the trenches in winning six of the past seven meetings. Miami rushed for a season-high 222 yards last week while not allowing a sack of Tannehill with the front five showing more cohesion. DT Marcell Dareus (hamstring) still hasn't made his season debut, but would provide even more depth to an already strong unit if he's able to get in on a handful of snaps.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Dolphins S Michael Thomas. He'll be tasked with replacing Pro Bowl strong safety Reshad Jones (rotator cuff), a job that probably can't be done by anyone else on the roster. Thomas will have help. Miami interchanges its safeties so FS Isa Abdul-Quddus will also help replace Jones. But this is a huge loss for a Miami defense that had already lost LB Koa Misi (neck/out for season), DT Earl Mitchell (calf) and CB Xavien Howard (knee) for extended stretches.
INJURY REPORT: Buffalo -- Out: T Seantrel Henderson (back). Doubtful: DT Marcell Dareus (hamstring), WR Robert Woods (foot). Questionable: TE Charles Clay (ankle), RB Jerome Felton (back), T Cordy Glenn (ankle), C Patrick Lewis (knee), RB LeSean McCoy (hamstring), CB Kevon Seymour (shoulder), DT Kyle Williams (neck). Miami -- Out: TE Jordan Cameron (concussion), CB Xavien Howard (knee), TE Dion Sims (concussion). Questionable: RB Arian Foster (hamstring), LB Jelani Jenkins (groin), CB Tony Lippett (hamstring), LB Spencer Paysinger (hamstring, calf).
FAST FACTS: Former Bills DE Mario Williams has just six tackles and one sack in his first season with the Dolphins. Lorenzo Alexander, who is playing in Williams' old role in Buffalo, has a league-high 8.0 sacks to go with 25 tackles, two pass break-ups and three forced fumbles. ... Ajayi joined Reggie Bush (2011), Ricky Williams (twice in 2002) and Lamar Smith (2000) as the only Dolphins to rush for 200 yards in a game.
PREDICTION: McCoy's status will be a significant factor, but the Bills have a capable group of backups and this is a difficult matchup for a Miami team that needs to prove last week's strong effort by Ajayi and the run defense wasn't the aberration the season stats would indicate.
OUR PICK: Bills, 19-17.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, MetLife Stadium. TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Rich Gannon, Evan Washburn
SERIES HISTORY: 10th regular-season meeting. Ravens lead series, 8-1.
KEYS TO THE GAME: After a brutal run of injuries in 2015, the Ravens again find themselves shorthanded as they attempt to stop a three-game losing streak against a desperate opponent making a quarterback change while riding a four-game skid.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has a "right shoulder issue," according to coach Jim Harbaugh, who said it's "my belief he'll be out there." If not, it will be Ryan Mallett, who brings a similarly big arm with limited mobility. Either can challenge the Jets' beleaguered secondary in the vertical passing game. But then there is the makeshift offensive line, the ankle injury that sidelined Steve Smith Sr. last week and the 34 penalties the offense has committed through the first six games. It's a complicated mix, even against the Jets, who do boast a strong line that leads the way for a run defense allowing only 3.4 yards per carry.
That's the same mark for the Ravens' top-ranked run defense allowing an average of just 69.7 yards per game. As the Jets make the switch behind center to Geno Smith, getting production out of the gate from RB Matt Forte figures to be critical. Then again, there's a Baltimore pass defense that could be without its most feared pass rusher in Terrell Suggs (biceps) and is dealing with a slew of injuries in the secondary. The Jets are minus-11 in turnover differential, and Geno Smith's ability to hold onto the quarterback job likely hinges on at least not building that number.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Jets ILB David Harris/Erin Henderson vs. Ravens TE Dennis Pitta. Harris, who missed his first game since 2008 on Monday, was seen at practice Wednesday. Even though his coverage skills have slipped, the Jets will need Harris to try and contain Pitta, the most reliable option in the Ravens' short passing game. Harris is a better option than Henderson, whose missed open-field tackle on Cardinals RB David Johnson's 58-yard touchdown run Monday was the lowest light of a dim night for the Jets.
--Ravens secondary vs. Jets WR Brandon Marshall. Marshall has 27 catches for 433 yards and two touchdowns despite uneven quarterback play and little in the way of other proven playmakers in the passing game. The Ravens gave up 222 yards to Odell Beckham last week, and hope CB Jimmy Smith can play after leaving that game with a concussion. Baltimore's secondary is also dealing with injuries to Tavon Young (undisclosed), Jerraud Powers (groin) and Shareece Wright (hamstring). Their status is also uncertain. Baltimore could move safety Lardarius Webb back to his original position at corner for experience
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Ravens OLB Za'Darius Smith. Smith is expected to replace Terrell Suggs, who suffered a torn biceps against the Giants last Sunday. The 34-year-old Suggs is still playing at a high level (five sacks), so his absence qualifies as a break for the Jets, who need to keep a clean pocket for the turnover-prone Smith.
INJURY REPORT: Baltimore -- Out: LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), LB C.J. Mosley (thigh). Doubtful: S Kendrick Lewis (thigh), WR Steve Smith (ankle), LB Terrell Suggs (biceps), CB Shareece Wright (thigh), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder). Questionable: WR Kamar Aiken (thigh), QB Joe Flacco (right shoulder), WR Devin Hester (thigh), CB Jerraud Powers (thigh) CB Jimmy Smith (concussion), T Ronnie Stanley (foot). New York Jets -- Out: TE Braedon Bowman (knee), LB Darron Lee (ankle), T Brent Qvale (neck), TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ankle). Questionable: T Ryan Clady (shoulder), C Nick Mangold (knee), DE Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle).
FAST FACTS: The Ravens have forced 11 turnovers through six games after forcing a single-season franchise low 14 all of last season. ... Flacco has been sacked 11 times over the past three games.
PREDICTION: The Ravens have dropped three consecutive games and are dealing with key injuries on both sides of the ball. The Jets have dropped four straight and are making a desperate quarterback change. Coin flip to the Jets, who get a bit of a spark from the change under center while the Ravens try to cope with their latest slew of injuries.
OUR PICK: Jets, 20-16.
SERIES HISTORY: 23rd regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 13-9. The Vikings have won two straight under strange circumstances. In 2013, as the Leslie Frazier regime was going down in flames, the Vikings upset a playoff-bound Eagles team 48-30 at the Metrodome. A week later, the Vikings were dominated at Cincinnati by a defensive coordinator named Mike Zimmer. In 2010, the Vikings traveled to Philadelphia for a Sunday game that wasn't played until Tuesday night because of the threat of a snow storm that never grew to the strength that was expected. That game helped Leslie Frazier eliminate the interim tag he held after stepping in for the fired Brad Childress earlier in the season. The Vikings were blitz-heavy that night, catching the playoff-bound Eagles off-guard in a 24-14 upset. The teams have met three times in the playoffs. The Eagles have won all three, including two divisional meetings and a wild-card matchup in which then-Eagles coach Andy Reid brought his No. 6-seeded team to the Metrodome and defeated his former Eagles and now current Chiefs assistant Childress and his No. 3-seeded Vikings 26-14 during the 2008 season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Teammates turned opposition by the Sept. 3 trade that pushed Eagles rookie Carson Wentz into a starting job and Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings equates to mutual familiarity that will fuel the game plan for both sides.
The Vikings are No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed and coach Mike Zimmer's defense will pick up where the Washington Redskins left off last week in rolling pressure packages at Wentz. His mobility was not a major factor against the Redskins, who hemmed Wentz in the pocket with relentless pressure and exposed RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who allowed two sacks and numerous pressures.
Wentz limits mistakes, but Bradford has made none. The Vikings are the only offense in the NFL without a turnover. The Vikings have 19 sacks and lead the NFL with a plus-11 turnover differential. The Vikings apply heat and don't turn it off.
Getting him help -- using tight ends to set the edge protection and utilizing the ground game -- is a must for the Eagles to pull the upset.
Minnesota has 10 players on injured reserve but the Vikings' conservative approach on offense suits the game plan of letting a talented defense win games.
Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon has good burst when the line creates a seam but too often he's meeting first contact behind the line of scrimmage, and averages just 3.1 yards per carry. The Eagles are struggling to get good push at the line of scrimmage and yield 4.8 yards per carry.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Vikings PR Marcus Sherels vs. Eagles PR Darren Sproles. No, they won't face each other. But they could put on quite the show if their opponent's coverage units aren't attentive, aggressive and careful. Sherels has a league-high two return touchdowns and is third in the league with a 16.5-yard average. He's a big reason the Vikings awoke from their slumber to win at Carolina. He'll face a 13-year veteran punter in Donnie Jones. Together with his coverage guys, Jones ranks 24th in net punting average at 38.2. They've also given up a punt return for a touchdown. They'll need to do better against Sherels. Meanwhile, the Vikings get Sproles, who is 10th in the league in punt return average (11.2) and seemingly always a pain in the Vikings' backside as either an offensive or special teams matchup. The Vikings counter with Jeff Locke, who is having his best season. He already has 13 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. His punts have better hang time, which has allowed the coverage unit to limit opponents to a 7.9-yard average with just 63 total return yards.
--Eagles QB Carson Wentz vs. Vikings FS Harrison Smith. Wentz cruised through a 3-0 start without an interception. Then he threw a damaging one near the end of the loss to Detroit. Another loss to Washington followed, but Wentz still has seven touchdown passes to only one interception. Smith will play a vital role in coach Mike Zimmer's attempt to confuse the rookie quarterback. If the Vikings can stop the run, Zimmer's creative fronts and third-down packages increase tremendously in difficulty to decipher. Smith's instincts, savvy and speed enable him to show blitz off the edge and drop deep, or vice versa. Six Vikings share the team's seven interceptions. Smith doesn't have one, although he flat-out dropped a pick-six against the Texans. And Wentz will have plenty to worry about, starting with the Vikings' front-seven defenders rushing him. But he better make sure he knows where Smith is at all times. Otherwise, Smith has a knack for slipping into perfect position for pick-sixes.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Vikings QB Sam Bradford. Perhaps too obvious, but no one should or will look past Bradford in this game. Traded by the Eagles to the Vikings eight days before the season started, Bradford has played nearly perfect. He sat behind Shaun Hill for a week and then posted the first four-game winning streak of his career. He leads the NFL in completion percentage (70.4), ranks second in passer rating (109.7) and continues to direct an offense that has not turned the ball over this season. Going back to last season with the Eagles, Bradford has thrown 152 straight passes without an interception. The Eagles are 3-2 with rookie first-round draft pick Carson Wentz. And they get the Vikings' first-round pick next year and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2018. But Bradford can make the Eagles regret the trade for at least one day if he goes back into Philly and plays like he has to this point in Minnesota.
INJURY REPORT: Minnesota -- Out: DT Sharrif Floyd (knee), TE Mycole Pruitt (knee, back). Doubtful: WR Jarius Wright (ankle). Questionable: WR Stefon Diggs (groin), WR Laquon Treadwell (thumb). Philadelphia -- Questionable: CB Ron Brooks (calf), LB Mychal Kendricks (ribs), DT Bennie Logan (groin), CB Leodis McKelvin (hamstring).
FAST FACTS: Dating to last season, the Vikings have a streak of nine games without allowing more than 18 points. ... Vikings S Anthony Sendejo (fumble lost) has the only Minnesota turnover this season. ... Wentz has one interception in 157 pass attempts. Bradford has zero in 125 passes.
PREDICTION: Unless the Eagles commit to lighting a fire with the running game to ease the strain on rookie QB Carson Wentz, Minnesota gets to 6-0 with a feisty defense healthy and rested after last week's bye.
OUR PICK: Vikings, 22-14.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Nissan Stadium. TV: CBS, Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots.
SERIES HISTORY: 43rd regular-season meeting. Colts lead series, 29-13. The Colts have dominated the AFC South and the Titans since the division was formed. Indy has won nine in a row vs. Tennessee and 14 of the past 15. The Colts are 17-6 vs. Tennessee in home games and 12-7 on the road. Indianapolis has posted wins in four of its last five games at Nissan Stadium, including last year's 35-33 decision.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Indianapolis has been consistently inconsistent through the first six games of the year, either not being able to start fast and keep the pressure on teams or not being able to close out contests when getting off to double-digit leads.
Offensively, the Colts have been shooting themselves in the foot with ill-timed penalties and poor decision making. Indianapolis' running game has shown some improvement but the inability to keep the chains moving in crucial situations continues to hamper the offensive production.
As for the defense, the Colts are still searching for a consistent pass rush. Opposing quarterbacks are getting too much time in the pocket to look downfield and find secondary receivers. Tackling has also been a recurring issue, especially late in games. Indianapolis has allowed too many yards after the catch.
Last week, the Titans turned to the passing game when the Browns keyed on stopping the run. This week, they hope to get back to running the football with DeMarco Murray against a Colts defense that can be porous.
On defense, Tennessee must get pressure on Andrew Luck and not allow T.Y. Hilton to beat them with big plays down the field. Look for the Titans to try to confuse Luck as much as possible with exotic blitzes and movement, especially on third down.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Colts QB Andrew Luck vs. Titans OLB Brian Orakpo. Luck has been sacked 23 times and hit on 46 other occasions through the first six games. Despite the constant pressure, he still has managed to complete 152-of-237 passes for 1,721 yards and 11 touchdowns while just throwing four interceptions. In seven career games against the Titans, Luck has connected on 139-227 passes for 1,738 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has been sacked 16 times by the Tennessee defense. Orakpo leads the Titans with seven sacks this year. Tennessee has 18 total sacks as a team.
--Titans QB Marcus Mariota vs. Colts linebackers. Mariota has gotten off to a strong start this year both throwing and running the football. He has completed 117-of-189 passes for 1,372 yards and 10 touchdowns along with six interceptions. Mariota has been sacked nine times this year. As a runner, he has 196 yards on 27 carries and one TD. Indianapolis is ranked 29th in the league in pass defense (293.5 yards per game), and 25th in run defense (117.7 yards per game). The Colts linebackers will have their hands full trying to contain Tennessee's dual-threat quarterback.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Colts CB Rashaan Melvin. The fourth-year defensive back from Northern Illinois, who was added to the roster on Sept. 7, has played relatively well when called upon. With injuries to CBs Patrick Robinson and Darius Butler, Melvin earned playing time with the first defensive unit. He had three tackles and a forced fumble in the home field win over Chicago two weeks ago and added five tackles in last week's loss at Houston. While Melvin needs to develop more consistency, his overall production has been a nice surprise.
INJURY REPORT: Indianapolis -- Out: TE Dwayne Allen (ankle), DT Henry Anderson (knee), WR Phillip Dorsett (foot, hamstring), DT Zach Kerr (ankle), LB Curt Maggitt (ankle), G Jack Mewhort (tricep), WR Donte Moncrief (shoulder). Questionable: CB Darius Butler (calf, hamstring), S T.J. Green (knee), C Jonotthan Harrison (illness), WR T.Y. Hilton (hip). Tennessee -- None listed.
FAST FACTS: Colts QB Andrew Luck is 7-0 vs. Tennessee, with four road wins. ... Colts WR. T.Y. Hilton caught four passes for 94 yards in his last game at Tennessee. He has 28 catches for 436 yards and three TDs in the past four games. ... Colts K Adam Vinatieri has made 41 consecutive FGs, the second-longest streak in NFL history. ... Titans QB Marcus Mariota passed for 367 yards and two TDs in his only start vs. Indianapolis. He has six passing TDs, 124 rushing yards and a rushing TD in his past two games. ... Titans WR Andre Johnson spent 2015 with Indianapolis. In his past seven vs. the Colts (when he was with Houston), he has 57 catches for 839 yards and seven TDs.
PREDICTION: This looks like another barnburner in the making, with Mariota and the Titans in position to end that nine-game losing streak.
OUR PICK: Titans, 35-30.
SERIES HISTORY: 10th regular-season meeting. The Falcons lead the series 8-1. The Falcons won the last meeting 27-3 on Sept. 23, 2012 in San Diego. They also won the last meeting in Atlanta, 21-20, on Oct. 17, 2004.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chargers have found themselves a convenient punchline for the creative ways in which they have found to lose football games through the first six weeks of the season. The truth is, they are talented enough to compete with any team in the league, but have just enough holes compounded by key injuries that make it difficult to hold up for four quarters.
Atlanta leads the league in scoring at 33.2 points per game despite playing just two home games - the last a 48-33 trouncing of reigning NFC champion Carolina. Chargers QB Philip Rivers has done a commendable job of throwing only three interceptions behind a mediocre offensive line and without WR Keenan Allen and RB Danny Woodhead. The ground game is virtually a one-man show with Melvin Gordon, who is averaging a meager 3.4 yards per carry and leaving Rivers constantly backed into third-and-long.
The good news for Rivers is the Falcons are still in search of a consistent pass rush with 11 sacks on the season. Question is, can Rivers continue to put points on the board on the road in a largely one-dimensional offense?
That's because Falcons QB Matt Ryan has a wealth of options at his disposal. That includes RBs Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who are duel threats out of the backfield and help keep defenses off-balance as they pick their poison with the receiving corps headed by Julio Jones. Ryan is getting hit with regularity, and roughing up Ryan while creating a big advantage in the turnover margin is likely San Diego's best bet to another dramatic finish.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Chargers TE Hunter Henry vs. Falcons secondary. It's almost blasphemous to mention any San Diego tight end before Antonio Gates, but he is serving as a commendable mentor to Henry, who is the first rookie tight end to score touchdowns in three consecutive weeks since Jimmy Graham did it in 2010. Ironically, the Falcons gave up six receptions for 89 yards to Graham in Seattle just last week.
--Falcons RT Ryan Schraeder vs. Chargers DE Joey Bosa. It hasn't taken long for Bosa to emerge at the top of the depth chart after getting into football shape following his protracted holdout. He has six tackles and a pair of sacks through two games and will make his second career start. Schraeder is a former undrafted rookie out of Valdosta State in 2013 who has quietly emerged as a solid veteran, and he'll engage in an entertaining battle with the third overall pick in last spring's draft.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Falcons CB Robert Alford. Coach Dan Quinn said there is "not a change at this point," but that is hardly a rousing endorsement. Quinn loves Alford's athleticism, but the right cornerback opposite Desmond Trufant has also racked up a team-high eight penalties for 110 yards, including six that have resulted in first downs as opponents continue to target him.
INJURY REPORT: San Diego -- Out: S Jahleel Addae (collarbone), LB Jeremiah Attaochu (ankle), CB Brandon Flowers (concussion). Questionable: WR Travis Benjamin (knee). Atlanta -- Out: WR Taylor Gabriel (concussion), CB C.J. Goodwin (hamstring).
FAST FACTS: The Chargers are 1-11 in their past 12 road games. ... The Falcons are in first in the NFL in yards per game (441.5), yards per play (6.93), passing yards per play (9.41) and points per game (33.2). ... The Chargers have held their past six opponents to under 93 yards rushing.
PREDICTION: The cards are stacked heavily against a Chargers team that does not play well on the road and is minus several key players on both sides of the ball. It's difficult to see the defense getting off the field, or Rivers going score-for-score against Ryan on the road without eventually succumbing to turnovers that result in Atlanta running out the clock for the majority of the fourth quarter.
OUR PICK: Falcons, 41-27.
SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. 49ers lead series, 17-4. The 49ers will take a two-game winning streak in the series into the game, having won the most recent meeting at home (48-3 on Oct. 9, 2011) and on the road (33-14 on Dec. 15, 2013). The Buccaneers have won just twice in 14 trips to the San Francisco Bay Area, most recently 21-0 on Nov. 21, 2010. The clubs have met once in the postseason, with the 49ers winning 31-6 at Tampa Bay on Jan. 12, 2003.
KEYS TO THE GAME: All eyes will be on Colin Kaepernick and Jameis Winston, but this game likely will come down to how well each team is able to run on a defense that appears vulnerable to the basic tactic. Actually, the San Francisco run defense is more than vulnerable -- it's been the worst in the league so far this season, giving the Buccaneers every reason to unleash Jacquizz Rodgers like they did in their most recent outing against Carolina, when he got 30 clock-churning carries in a 17-14 win.
Kaepernick ran for 66 yards in his first start at Buffalo, but he'd be wise to be in more of a throwing mode (when not handing off) this week. The Buccaneers contained Cam Newton (just two rushes for 1 yard) in their last game, but they're less-than-stellar in defending the pass, having already allowed nine TD passes this season.
Injuries to WR Vincent Jackson, who was placed on injured reserve, and RB Doug Martin, who had a setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury, leaves the Bucs extremely short-handed. A key will be whether Winston has enough good targets to throw to with WR Mike Evans expected to draw even more attention.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--49ers WR Torrey Smith vs. Buccaneers CB Brent Grimes. The Buccaneers allowed touchdowns to two receivers in each of their first four games, so clearly Grimes isn't the only problem in their secondary. But he's certainly been a big part of the problem, and now he goes up against a rejuvenated Smith, who celebrated Colin Kaepernick's first start of the season last week with just his second touchdown catch of the year.
--Buccaneers RB Jacquizz Rodgers vs. 49ers ILB Gerald Hodges. No team is worse at stopping the run than the 49ers, so they've promised some changes this week. Hodges, known as a run stopper when he made three starts earlier this season, will be brought back into the mix after he was in for just four plays last week at Buffalo. Rodgers is coming off a 101-yard game against Carolina, and now encounters a defense that has allowed a 100-yard gainer on the ground in each of its last four games.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bucs PK Roberto Aguayo. The rookie needs to have a good game against the 49ers. He needs a bunch of good games. The beleaguered second-round pick is only 4-of-8 in field goal attempts this season. Even though he hit the game-winner against the Panthers on Monday night, it remains to be seen whether that will settle him down.
INJURY REPORT: Tampa Bay -- Out: DE Robert Ayers (ankle), RB Doug Martin (hamstring), DT Clinton McDonald (hamstring). Questionable: CB Jude Adjei-Barimah (knee), C Joe Hawley (knee), DT Gerald McCoy (calf), WR Cecil Shorts (hamstring), TE Luke Stocker (ankle). San Francisco -- Out: RB Carlos Hyde (shoulder). Questionable: DT Glenn Dorsey (knee), CB Rashard Robinson (concussion), WR Torrey Smith (back).
FAST FACTS: Tampa Bay WR Mike Evans aims for his fourth road game in a row with a touchdown. ... 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick passed for 187 yards and a TD and ran for 66 yards in his season debut last week. He threw for 203 yards and two TDs in his last game against Tampa Bay. ... 49ers rookie DE DeForest Buckner had two sacks last week, his first multi-sack game.
PREDICTION: It's a long trip from Tampa to Santa Clara and Kaepernick should be more comfortable in his second start -- especially against a short-handed defense.
OUR PICK: 49ers, 20-17.
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 14-10, but the Patriots have won five of the past seven, including the 2015 season opener in New England. The Steelers are 10-6 in regular-season games in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers are 1-2 at home against the Patriots in the playoffs, including two losses in AFC championship games following the 2001 and 2004 seasons.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Numbers don't matter for the Pittsburgh Steelers -- this is not the same scheme without Ben Roethlisberger at the controls. Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams become the lead dogs for the Steelers, who will pound on first and second down while occasionally unleashing Landry Jones in a play-action attack.
Bell said the key to this week is finding some success in the first quarter, which will not only fuel the Heinz Field faithful but breed confidence in Jones.
"I think he has a lot of good things that he can bring to the table," Bell said. "We've just got to, as a whole entire offense, help him out and get him comfortable and get him confident in himself, and that's when he really will start striking."
Coverage of elite tight ends remains a weak spot for the Steelers' defense, and that's a downer considering the stats Martellus Bennett and All-Pro Rob Gronkowski are capable of stamping on this defense.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers are not locking in on stopping QB Tom Brady, who has 782 yards and seven touchdowns in two games since his suspension ended. That's because the Steelers' run defense was overwhelmed last week and a familiar face, RB LeGarrette Blount, represents the type of powerful, downhill back that has dented the Steelers' defense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler vs. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Butler's first game as defensive coordinator was against Brady and the Patriots and it did not go well. Brady was 25 for 32 for 288 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a 28-21 Patriots win in last year's season opener. Butler has been a part of Steelers' staffs that have done better against Brady. In 2011, the Patriots scored just 17 points in a loss at Heinz Field. In that game, the Steelers sacked Brady five times and limited the Patriots to 213 total yards. Butler will need to coax more out of his pass rushers if he's going to limit Brady again. The Steelers have just eight sacks in the first six games.
--Steelers offensive line vs. Patriots defensive line. The Steelers will look to lean on their veteran offensive line with backup Landry Jones getting the start, and they might have some success against a Patriots team that ranks 28th in the league in rush defense. The Steelers have invested lots of money in long-term contracts for center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and tackle Marcus Gilbert, and they'll get their chance to earn this week in what should be a run-heavy game plan.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell. Since returning from a three-game suspension, Bell is averaging a league-leading 146.7 yards from scrimmage per game. Bell has lined up as a traditional running back, a slot receiver and a wideout. But this is a game where the Steelers could lean heavily on Bell as a traditional halfback. With backup quarterback Landry Jones making his first start of the season in place an injured Ben Roethlisberger, Bell will get a heavy workload and should get more than 20 carries in a game for the first time this season. When Roethlisberger is healthy, Bell can be a difference-maker in the passing game, perhaps as much as the running game. But with Jones at quarterback, Bell will settle into a more one-dimensional role against the Patriots, who are 28th in the league against the run.
INJURY REPORT: New England -- Questionable: TE Martellus Bennett (ankle), RB Brandon Bolden (knee), LB Jamie Collins (hip), WR Julian Edelman (foot), DT Woodrow Hamilton (shoulder), LB Shea McClellin (concussion), WR Malcolm Mitchell (hamstring), LB Elandon Roberts (ankle), DT Vincent Valentine (back). Pittsburgh -- Out: T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), DE Cameron Heyward (hamstring), QB Ben Roethlisberger (knee), S Shamarko Thomas (groin), C Cody Wallace (knee), WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder), RB DeAngelo Williams (knee).
FAST FACTS: The Patriots average 24.7 points in four regular-season starts by Tom Brady at Heinz Field, compared to 36.7 per game against Pittsburgh in games at Gillette Stadium. ... With his next TD, Rob Gronkowski will tie Stanley Morgan's franchise record with 68 touchdowns.
PREDICTION: With Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers might warrant the favorite label, but without him, this isn't a fair fight. The Steelers will need every break to stay with a driven Tom Brady and the juggernaut Patriots' offense.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 31-20.
SERIES HISTORY: 35th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 17-17.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals got a feel for the Seahawks' "new" offense during a 36-6 loss at home in Week 17 last season. Granted, Arizona had clinched the division and a first-round bye, but coach Bruce Arians saw the new approach -- and the ability of Seahawks QB Russell Wilson to hurt opposing defenses from the pocket. That has been especially beneficial for Seattle early this season with Wilson dealing with right ankle and left knee injuries that have limited his mobility. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he would like to see a more even distribution between the run-pass play-calling, but it's clear this offense is now Wilson's show to run. The Cardinals enter with 19 sacks and, if they can bottle up RB Christine Michael early, Arizona could make life difficult on Wilson from the pocket.
Ironically, it's Arizona's star-studded passing game that enters still seeking to find its rhythm. RB David Johnson enters with 833 combined yards and eight touchdowns through just six games as he has emerged as the catalyst for the offense. The Seahawks will rely on their front seven and either Kam Chancellor (groin) or Kelcie McCray to contain the ground game and largely rely on the single-high safety support of Earl Thomas to prevent the big plays that Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is still seeking from his passing attack. Seattle's vaunted "Legion of Boom" suffered a few breakdowns in communication against Atlanta last week, and the Cardinals present an equally formidable set of weaponry for QB Carson Palmer to test those coverages with.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Seahawks wide receivers vs. Cardinals CB Tharold Simon. The former fifth-round pick by the Seahawks was claimed off waivers on Sept. 14 and played in 43 percent of the Cardinals' defensive snaps against the Jets on Monday night. Arizona has shelved the Brandon Williams experiment for now, with Simon now in the nickel package with Patrick Peterson and Marcus Cooper. The physical Simon is better suited outside, where he will likely see time against WRs Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, who spent the past three years working against Simon in practice.
--Seahawks RG Germain Ifedi vs. Cardinals NT Corey Peters. Carroll loves Ifedi's toughness, but acknowledged the rookie had his struggles against Arizona last week, noting issues with footwork and the expected growing pains. Arizona will no doubt dissect those tendencies on film and look to exploit the rookie. Peters and fellow veteran DE Calais Campbell will engage in some games to confuse the Texas A&M product, who will also likely lock horns with fellow former SEC star Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss).
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Seahawks TE Nick Vannett. After missing the first five weeks with a high ankle sprain, the rookie out of Ohio State saw his first action last week, with three snaps on offense and two on special teams. That role should increase rapidly with Luke Willson out following knee surgery this week. Carroll said Vannett will be involved "extensively" in the game plan, described the staff's view of the Ohio State product's playing time as "anxious" and, when asked if Vannett could fill some of the fullback duties that Willson serves, replied, "He could."
INJURY REPORT: Seattle -- Out: DE Quinton Jefferson (knee), LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle), RB Thomas Rawls (fibula), TE Luke Willson (knee). Questionable: S Kam Chancellor (groin). Arizona -- Out: DT Ed Stinson (toe). Doubtful: WR John Brown (hamstring), LB Gabe Martin (knee). Questionable: WR Jaron Brown (knee), QB Carson Palmer (hamstring).
FAST FACTS: Wilson has thrown 158 passes since his last interception, the third-longest streak in the NFL and 10 shy of tying his personal best set last season. ... The Cardinals are 20-0 since 2011 when scoring at least 28 points, and 10-36 in all other games. ... The Seahawks and Cardinals have combined to win 10 of the past 12 NFC West titles. ... Seattle has a three-game road winning streak in the series.
PREDICTION: These teams have owned the NFC West dating back to 2004 outside of a two-year break owned by San Francisco (2011-12), and there is the respected rivalry that comes with it. The Cardinals have lost the past three meetings at home by a combined score of 105-34, and have been asked about it ad nauseum all week. The defense is coming together, should own the line of scrimmage, and provide QB Carson Palmer with enough short field to keep the Seahawks in chase mode.
OUR PICK: Cardinals, 27-24.
SERIES HISTORY: 6th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 3-2. Broncos have won two of three at home. Most historic meeting between these two teams was on Dec. 26, 2010, when Tim Tebow led the Broncos back from a 17-0 halftime deficit to a 24-23 win in his second career start.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Once upon a time -- precisely 11 months ago -- Brock Osweiler burst onto the scene in his first start with the Denver Broncos at Chicago and flashed the kind of promise that led the franchise to believe he could be the QB of the future.
Cash, and the belief by the Houston Texans that Osweiler was the franchise passer owner Bob McNair coveted, led him into a free agency union that didn't involve the Broncos. That sets the stage for Monday's amicable reunion.
Osweiler stares down the barrel at a Denver defense