Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) at Carolina Panthers (3-5)
SERIES HISTORY: 6th regular-season meeting. Chiefs lead series, 3-2. Their last meeting came in 2012 when the Chiefs snapped an eight-game losing streak with a 27-21 win in Kansas City.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Kansas City will try to run the ball, but they may find little room against the league's third-ranked rush defense. So it will be up to QB Alex Smith to beat Carolina's inexperienced secondary, which he should be able to do -- if he has time. The Panthers lead the NFL with 12 sacks over the past two weeks, so their renewed pass rush will have to show up again to knock off the 6-2 Chiefs.
The Chiefs have a middle-of-the-pack pass defense, but they are allowing 124.5 rushing yards per game. That lines up well for a Panthers' ground game that had a rare off game in Los Angeles. If the Chiefs can't slow down a running game led by RB Jonathan Stewart and QB Cam Newton, the Panthers have a good shot to extend their win streak to three.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers RT Daryl Williams vs. Chiefs OLB Dee Ford. Williams has been in the starting lineup since Week 4 and is having a solid sophomore season. But he will have his hands full with Ford, who racked up 5.5 sacks in his past two games.
--Panthers LB Luke Kuechly vs. Chiefs TE Travis Kelce. The great Kuechly is having trouble covering TEs this year and the Panthers won't use him in coverage the entire game. Still, he will be put on the spot against the Chiefs' most dangerous pass catcher. Kelce leads Kansas City with 39 receptions for 435 yards and three touchdowns.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chiefs WR Kelvin Benjamin. He has been OK in his return from a torn ACL, but Benjamin is not on top of his game yet. He is averaging 67.9 receiving yards per game, but has just one 100-yard outing and no TDs since Week 4.
INJURY REPORT: Kansas City -- Out: LB Justin Houston (knee), DE Jaye Howard (hip), WR Jeremy Maclin (groin). Doubtful: CB D.J. White (hand). Questionable: LB Derrick Johnson (hamstring). Carolina -- Out: S Colin Jones (concussion), T Michael Oher (concussion). Questionable: DT Vernon Butler (ankle), C Gino Gradkowski (knee), C Ryan Kalil (shoulder), DT Kyle Lowe (knee), LB Shaq Thompson (knee).
FAST FACTS: Chiefs LB Dee Ford is tied for third in the NFL nine sacks, including 5.5 sacks in past two games, and aims for his third consecutive game with multiple sacks. Since 2015, CB Marcus Peters has 13 interceptions, most in the NFL. ... Panthers QB Cam Newton passed for 232 yards, 3 TDs and 121.2 rating (adding 78 yards rushing) in last meeting. In past seven home games, he has 1,928 yards passing (275.4 per game) and 21 TDs (17 pass, 4 rush). Panthers LB Thomas Davis had 11 tackles, an interception, a sack and a forced fumble in the victory over Los Angeles. The previous week against Arizona, Davis scored his first career TD, a 46-yard fumble return.
PREDICTION: This should be a good game, with the Panthers looking for home-field advantage -- and maybe closer attention by officials to their reigning MVP QB.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 28-21.
SERIES HISTORY: 29th meeting in the series. Houston leads, 17-11. Teams have played twice every year for 14 consecutive seasons. Jaguars .393 percentage against Texans is second worst among opponents it has played at least 10 times (Indianapolis, 10-21, .323). Jaguars have lost four in a row and 9 of last 11 to Texans. Only two wins in that span came in 2013 when Jacksonville won both games. Jacksonville has split 14 games at home with Houston.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Texans will try to contain athletic Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and limit the impact of wide receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson.
Texans rookie wide receiver Will Fuller returned to practice Wednesday. The first-round draft pick from Notre Dame left the game against Detroit and didn't return. He has dealt with knee and hamstring injuries.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien characterized Fuller as a game-time decision.
"I think he's doing okay," O'Brien said. "I think he's day to day."
Meanwhile, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork didn't practice again due to a groin injury.
Other than coughing the ball up three times in the Kansas City game, the Jaguars offense was efficient last week in achieving the balance it is seeking. A ground game that netted 205 yards and a passing attack that accounted for 252 should have been good enough to produce a win. But four turnovers overshadowed the offensive numbers in the 19-14 loss.
Still, it gives hope that newly appointed offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett found the right mix of run-pass in his first game of calling plays. Look for Jacksonville to continue that trend, especially the 32 running plays that produced a 200-yard effort.
Bortles also threw more long passes, and while only connecting on one pass that gained more than 20 yards, the Jaguars will likely continue to try and hit on the long ball downfield.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
-- Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins vs. Jaguars DB Jalen Ramsey.
Hopkins had strong performances against the Jaguars last season, but that was without Ramsey. The rookie defensive back has provided size, strength and speed for a secondary that was lacking those qualities. Hopkins isn't having a great season.
--Texans OLB Whitney Mercilus vs. Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.
Mercilus is the Texans' top pass rusher with 4.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hits. Bortles is mobile, but is a big target at 6-5, 239 pounds and has been sacked just 19 times. He passed for 2,156 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for an 80.1 passer rating.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT; Jaguars WR Allen Robinson. This is not the same who was a force in 2015, finishing with 80 receptions, good for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. At the halfway point this year, the third-year veteran is on pace for another 80-catch season, but the yardage total (442) is well off last year's pace as are the touchdowns (4). Robinson has shown some signs of getting on track. His 7 catches against Kansas City matched his season best while his 76 receiving yards was his best this year. But he had nine games last year in which he had at least 80 yards in receptions and he's yet to hit that total once in his first eight games. Robinson has had too many drops this year and quarterback Blake Bortles has not delivered the ball to him nearly as efficient as he did a year ago.
INJURY REPORT: Houston -- Out: S Lonnie Ballentine (groin, knee, ankle), WR Jaelen Strong (ankle). Questionable: CB A.J. Bouye (ankle), WR Will Fuller (knee), RB Jonathan Grimes (illness), LB Brian Peters (quadriceps), DT Vince Wilfork (groin). Jacksonville -- Out: WR Bryan Walters (concussion). Questionable: LB Arthur Brown (ankle), S Tashaun Gipson (hamstring), WR Allen Hurns (concussion), DE Chris Smith (eye).
FAST FACTS: Texans QB Brock Osweiler is 2-0 vs. the division with 523 passing yards and four TDs. RB Lamar Miller collected 286 scrimmage yards (231 rushing) and two TDs in the past two division games and ranks fifth in the AFC with 637 yards rushing. DE Jadeveon Clowney had one sack in Week 8 and is tied for the lead among NFL DEs with nine tackles for loss. ... Jags QB Blake Bortles has attempted at least 30 passes in 17 straight games, the second-longest active streak in the NFL (Joe Flacco, 23). However, extended time in the pocket has exposed him to pressure as Bortles has been sacked in 22 straight games, also the second-longest active streak (Philip Rivers, 27).
PREDICTION: The Texans are rested but still not healthy after their bye, but they probably can beat the struggling Jags.
OUR PICK: Texans, 28-14.
SERIES HISTORY: 11th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 8-2. Broncos have won four straight. Most historic meeting between these two teams was on Nov. 20, 1988, when the Saints drubbed the Broncos 42-0 in a loss that helped lead to the dismissal of long-time defensive coordinator Joe Collier, who had been on the Broncos' staff for 20 seasons and was the primary architect of the famed Orange Crush defense.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The NFL's top-ranked passing offense will go against No. 1 pass defense when the Saints meet the Broncos, but that won't be a deterrent at all for New Orleans coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees.
The Saints balanced their top-ranked offense beautifully the past two weeks, rushing for 123 yards against the Seattle Seahawks and 248 yards vs. the San Francisco 49ers. While they want to throw, they won't mind trying to repeat their running success considering the Broncos allow 128.6 rushing yards per game to rank 29th in the league.
Defensively, the Saints are better in recent weeks, which is good news considering the Broncos are struggling a bit in both running and throwing the ball. Denver has rushed for more than 100 yards just once in the last seven games and only once in nine games this season have the Broncos surpassed the 300-yard mark in net passing. They are counting on hard-running rookie Devontae Booker (80 carries, 320 yard, 2 TDs) to find his stride.
The Saints rank last in the NFL in allowing 300.0 passing yards per game, which should be an invitation for the Broncos to get QB Trevor Siemian going with wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. The Saints use a lot of three-safety looks and will likely employ that tactic this week and hope the front seven can handle a Broncos' running game that ranks 23rd with just 96.3 yards per game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Saints offensive line vs. Broncos SLB Von Miller. This is the biggest key for the Saints this week, especially for the left side of their offensive line, after coach Sean Payton said Wednesday that Miller was the best pass rusher in the league. Left tackle Terron Armstead will likely be questionable, which means that left guard Andrus Peat will likely move into his spot. That would move Senio Kelemete into Peat's spot. Despite numerous injuries along the line, the Saints have given up just 12 sacks in eight games. That means keeping Miller away from Drew Brees will be essential to their success.
--Broncos WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas vs. Saints CBs Delvin Breaux and B.W. Webb. Sanders has 49 catches for 614 yards and three TDs and Thomas has 47 receptions for 591 yards and four scores and both are obviously capable of going off at any time. Breaux and Webb and nickel back Sterling Moore would love to get some help from a pass rush to make Trevor Siemian a little uncomfortable in the pocket, but the Saints have just 11 sacks this season. If the Saints can generate any kind of pressure, it could go a long way to having Breaux, Webb and Moore do their job against two formidable receiving threats.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Broncos RB Kapri Bibbs. He is in line to get more work after showing a flash of brilliance with his 69-yard catch-and-run through Oakland's defense in the fourth quarter last Sunday night. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said he wants to give Bibbs more opportunities, but that is likely predicated on the offense being able to sustain the kind of lengthy drives it has failed to produce in recent weeks.
INJURY REPORT: Denver -- Out: CB Aqib Talib (back), DE Derek Wolfe (elbow). New Orleans -- Out: LB Stephone Anthony (hamstring), LB Michael Mauti (illness). Questionable: T Terron Armstead (knee), LB Dannell Ellerbe (quadricep), RB Daniel Lasco (hamstring).
FAST FACTS: Broncos QB Trevor Siemian completed only 48.6 percent last week. Over the last three games, his completion percentage is 52.0, lowest in the NFL in Weeks 7-9 (minimum 50 attempts). On the road in 2016, Siemian has eight TD passes, one interception and a 97.5 rating. WR Demaryius Thomas had 137 yards receiving, TD catch in last meeting. He has 47 catches (6.7 per game) for 640 yards (91.4 per game), TD receptions in 7 career games vs. NFC South and is fourth fastest in NFL history (94 games) to reach 500-plus receptions (503) & 50-plus yards receiving and TDs (51) in career. WR Emmanuel Sanders leads team with 49 catches, 614 yard receiving. ... Saints RB Mark Ingram rushed for 158 yards, including a career-long 75-yard TD, and added a TD catch in Week 9.
PREDICTION: Something must give between the Saints' prolific passing game and the Broncos' brutal defense. The key to the game may be on the other sides of the ball, where Denver must find a running game to keep their defense rested and help their young QB keep the game close.
OUR PICK: Saints, 34-21.
SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting, Rams lead series 9-4. The Jets earned their second straight win in the series in the most recent game between the teams Nov. 18, 2012, when Bilal Powell rushed for two touchdowns and Nick Folk booted a pair of 51-yard field goals in a 27-13 victory over the Rams in St. Louis. The Jets and Rams have played two overtime games, most recently on Jan. 2, 2005, when the Rams eked out a 32-29 win that left the Jets reliant on help from the Buffalo Bills -- who lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers -- to back into the playoffs as a wild-card team.
KEYS TO THE GAME: With their quarterback situation unsettled -- starter Ryan Fitzpatrick is questionable with a knee injury and backup Bryce Petty attempted his first two regular-season passes last week -- the Jets are going to have to rely more than ever on RBs Matt Forte and Bilal Powell. In a 27-23 loss to the Dolphins last Sunday, Forte inexplicably got just 12 carries, a total he likely will have to double in order for the Jets to beat the Rams. Petty's first completion was to Powell, who should be a big part of the game as a pass catcher. Forte and Powell will be doubly valuable Sunday, considering WR Brandon Marshall may not get much going against Rams shutdown CB Trumaine Johnson.
On defense, the Jets need to roll the dice and make mistake-prone QB Case Keenum try to beat them through the air. The Rams actually put more on Keenum's shoulders the last three weeks, during which All-Pro RB Todd Gurley failed to reach 20 carries in a game or score a touchdown. Even after allowing Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi to rush for 111 yards last Sunday, the Jets are limiting opposing ballcarriers to 3.5 yards per attempt. If the Jets can shut down Gurley and give CB Darrelle Revis some safety help on WR Kenny Britt, they would be positioned to win a low-scoring game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Rams WR Kenny Britt vs. Jets CB Darrelle Revis. Revis didn't get beat once last week against the Miami Dolphins. Of course, the Dolphins also didn't throw at him a single time. Still, Revis will take confidence-boosters where he can find them. A resurgent Britt -- on pace for his first 1,000-yard season in his eighth NFL campaign -- should provide a better barometer for Revis. The Rams have been unusually aggressive through the air with mediocre QB Case Keenum and are unlikely to get much going on the ground against the Jets' stout run defense.
--Jets WR Brandon Marshall vs. Rams CB Trumaine Johnson. Marshall has 40 catches for 585 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson has totaled 28 tackles and one interception through six games while sitting out three with an ankle injury.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: LT Ben Ijalana. Welcome to the big time, kid. As the backup the previous three seasons to ironman D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Ijalana annually looked pretty good in training camp before returning to mothballs once the season kicked off. Ijalana held his own as part of a timeshare, along with Brent Qvale, at right tackle earlier this season, but he is entrenched at left tackle now following the loss of Ryan Clady. At 27, Ijalana is getting his first and likely last chance to prove he can be a building block.
INJURY REPORT: Los Angeles -- Out: WR Nelson Spruce (calf). Questionable: DT Michael Brockers (groin), RB Todd Gurley (thigh), CB Trumaine Johnson (ankle), CB Lamarcus Joyner (back), DE Matt Longacre (hip). New York -- Out: LB Bruce Carter (quadricep), TE Kellen Davis (elbow), C Nick Mangold (ankle), LB Josh Martin (concussion), CB Marcus Williams (ankle). Questionable: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (knee), T Brandon Shell (shoulder), CB Buster Skrine (knee).
FAST FACTS: Rams TE Lance Kendricks tied a career high with seven receptions and gained 90 yards last week. ... Rams DT Aaron Donald had two sacks in Week 9. Since 2014, he leads NFL DTs with 25 sacks. He has 6.5 sacks in the past eight vs. the AFC. ... Jets RB Matt Forte has 349 scrimmage yards (274 rushing) and five TDs in his past three games. In his past three vs. the Rams, he has 307 rushing yards and three TDs. ... Jets DT Leonard Williams leads the team and is second among AFC D-linemen with six sacks. He has 5.5 sacks in his past five at home.
PREDICTION: These two teams continue to have issues at quarterback, which means this game doesn't figure to feature many points.
OUR PICK: Rams, 16-12.
SERIES HISTORY: 30th regular-season meeting. The Eagles lead the series 15-13-1. The Falcons won the last meeting, 26-24, on Sept. 14, 2015 at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons beat the Eagles 30-17 on their last visit to Philadelphia on Oct. 28, 2102 as Julio Jones caught a 63-yard touchdown pass.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Eagles defense will face its most difficult challenge of the season against Falcons QB Matt Ryan. The Falcons boast the league's top scoring offense at 33.9 points per game. The offense is averaging 429.2 yards per game, which is second in the league.
Only nine games into the season, the Falcons are shootout kings. They have five wins when allowing 28 or more points. That ties a full season NFL record for wins when allowing at least 28 points (also held by the 2000 St. Louis Rams).
"They do it all," Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "They run the ball well. Matt is playing at a high level. And Julio is Julio. One of the best receivers in the game."
Julio Jones Leads NFL with 970 yards receiving and has 5 TDs. In last two games vs. Eagles, he collected 264 yards receiving, three TDs.
"It's a big, big challenge. But when we've had those challenges in front of us before, we've risen up to them. I'm excited to play. We're back at the Linc (Lincoln Financial Field). It brings us energy. I'm excited about it."
The Eagles are 3-0 at home this season and 1-4 on the road, including losses the last two weeks to a pair of division opponents, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants. They blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the Cowboys and lost in overtime. A potential game-winning drive last week died on the Giants 17-yard line.
Falcons DE Dwight Freeney is questionable and didn't practice Wednesday (thigh). He played 23 snaps against the Packers and sat out last week's game against the Bucs. Freeney, 36, may be wearing down. He recorded just five quarterback pressures in the past three games after registering 18 pressures in Weeks 3-5.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Falcons DE Vic Beasley vs. Eagles RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Beasley leads Falcons with 7.5 sacks. Vaitai gave up 2.5 sacks against the Redskins. Beasley helped to revive the Falcons long-dormant pass rush. He uses speed to torment tackles and is finishing stronger around the quarterback. Vaitai took over for the suspended Lane Johnson and improved steadily.
--Falcons QB Matt Ryan vs. Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins. Matty Ice is re4d hot and Jenkins is Philadelpia's leader in the secondary. Ryan completed 25 of 34 for 344 yards, four 4 TDs for 144.7 rating last week. He leads NFL with 2,980 pass yards and 23 TD passes. The diversified offense makes it difficult for teams to double-team Julio Jones. Jenkins has one fumble recovery, a sack and has returned an interception 64 yards for a touchdown. He also has 33 tackles.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Falcons DB Jalen Collins. Starting LCB Desmond Trufant suffered a shoulder/pectoral injury, missed practice Wednesday and reportedly is day to day. Collins, an under-achieving second-round draftee from 2015, came in for Trufant during the Tampa Bay game and played 49 of 80 defensive snaps (61 percent) with only two tackles and one pass breakup. That is not enough production. Collins served a four-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs to start the season. Sunday he should face WR Jordan Matthews, the Eagles' leading receiver with 42 catches for 507 yards and three touchdowns.
INJURY REPORT: Atlanta -- Out: RB Tevin Coleman (hamstring), DE Dwight Freeney (quadricep), TE Jacob Tamme (shoulder). Philadelphia -- Out: G Allen Barbre (hamstring), S Terrence Brooks (hamstring). Questionable: LB Kamu Grugier-Hill (hamstring).
FAST FACTS: Falcons WR Julio Jones, who will be playing his 75th career NFL game on Sunday, has 465 career receptions. No player in NFL history has more receptions in his first 75 games, with the previous high mark by of 462 catches through 75 games by Anquan Boldin. ... Eagles QB Carson Wentz broke the franchise record for passing yards by a quarterback in his rookie season last week. Wentz has 1,890 passing yards in 2016, besting the previous mark of 1,699 yards by Nick Foles in 2012.
PREDICTION: The Eagles started fast this season but now appear vulnerable and the Falcons don't plan to be polite guests.
OUR PICK: Falcons, 40-21.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: FOX, Dan Hellie, David Diehl, Holly Sonders.
SERIES HISTORY: 57th regular-season meeting. Bears lead the all-time series 38-18, including five of the past six meetings. The Bears won in Tampa Bay 26-21 last season. The teams met in London in 2011, with the Bears prevailing 24-18. From one of the team reports
KEYS TO THE GAME: Facing young quarterbacks early this season was a problem for the crippled Bears defense. Now, facing Bucs second-year QB Jameis Winston with almost all their best pass rushers healthy, the Bears may not need to resort to blitzing so often and can mix and disguise coverages.
Stopping the run first is critical early in the game. The Bucs have been quick to abandon the run and it puts pressure on their young passer, leading to mistakes. The Bucs will try to establish RB Doug Martin now that he is back from injury. Only four teams have thrown more interceptions than the Bucs.
The Bears zoned up the Vikings as much as possible and it's probably going to be the approach again because of Winston's penchant for throwing the ball up for grabs.
Offensively, Jay Cutler can look down the field to attack more in this game. The Bucs' pass defense allows a passer rating of 103.5, worse than all but two teams. They have yielded 37 pass plays of 20 yards or longer, ranking 31st in the league.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Bears WR Alshon Jeffery vs. Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III or Brent Grimes. Jeffery scored his first TD of season last week and Hargreaves is a promising rookie without an interception. Jeffery has a height edge on both Bucs corners, who are 5-foot-10. Matched up against a rookie, Jay Cutler is sure to look to Jeffery with an assortment of back-shoulder throws and deep sideline routes. It was that deep threat that opened up the running game and the rest of the field in the passing game against Minnesota and Chicago needs it to continue.
--Bucs WR Mike Evans vs. Bears CB Tracy Porter. Porter has two picks and Evans leads Bucs with 55 catches. Evans, at 6-5, 231, is a load to handle for even taller cornerbacks. Porter is only average height and still trying to shake the effects of a knee injury. However, has shut down top receivers three straight games. With a taller quarterback throwing to a taller receiver, though, it will be a challenge in the red zone for Porter. When the Bucs lost WR Vincent Jackson for the year on IR, it allowed defenses to focus more on Evans, so the Bears may be able to provide Porter with occasional help.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bears CB Bryce Callahan. Healthier than he has been in several weeks, Callahan could make the secondary the most viableit has been all year. Callahan displayed excellent man-to-man technique in the nickel cornerback position, and was moved to the outside after it became apparent Kyle Fuller needed knee surgery. Callahan's strength and technique were advantages inside, but on the outside speed is more of a factor. It has been only two weeks so his hamstring may not be entirely healed. If not, it may not be the big boost the Bears had hoped. Players too inexperienced to be on the outside have been handling that spot, like De'Vante Bausby, Jacoby Glenn and Cre'Von LeBlanc. If they are forced to use inexperience again, Jameis Winston could find easy pickings down the field.
INJURY REPORT: Chicago -- Out: CB Deiondre' Hall (ankle). Questionable: CB Bryce Callahan (ankle), DT Eddie Goldman (ankle), LB Pernell McPhee (knee), CB Tracy Porter (knee), WR Eddie Royal (toe), DE Mitch Unrein (back). Tampa Bay -- Out: T Kevin Pamphile (concussion), RB Jacquizz Rodgers (foot), WR Russell Shepard (hip). Doubtful: C Joe Hawley (knee). Questionable: RB Doug Martin (hamstring), DT Clinton McDonald (hamstring).
FAST FACTS: Bears RB Jordan Howard set career highs in rushing yards (153) and receiving yards (49), giving him 202 scrimmage yards in the win against the Vikings. At 22 years and 4 days old, he became the youngest Bear ever with 200-plus yards from scrimmage, leapfrogging Walter Payton (22 years and 133 days old when he had 213 scrimmage yards on December 5, 1976 against the Seahawks). . . . Bucs WR Mike Evans had a career-high 11 receptions for a season-high 150 yards in last week's loss. He caught two of QB Jameis Winston's three touchdown passes. Winston has 17 TDPs this season, the most by a Buccaneer ever in the first eight games of a season.
PREDICTION: Bears looked like a team renewed in 20-10 win over Vikings before bye and the confidence from that game could carry over.
OUR PICK: Bears, 35-21.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th meeting. Titans lead the series, 6-5. The last time these two teams met was in 2012 at Lambeau Field, and it was bad for the Titans, who were hammered 55-7.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Packers go into Sunday's game in Nashville against the Titans limping literally, with a slew of injuries, and figuratively, with two straight losses. The start of Green Bay's rare three-game road swing isn't made any easier. The Packers may be getting highly touted young quarterback Marcus Mariota in the midst of a breakthrough stretch.
The second-year pro has completed 69 percent of his passes for 583 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions, in the last two games.
The Packers' defense, which still could be without a few key players, is focused first and foremost on stopping the run. Mariota is merely a complementary piece in the Titans' third-ranked rushing attack, which averages 144.2 yards per game and is led by veteran halfback DeMarco Murray. The sixth-year pro ranks second in the league with 807 rushing yards, just behind Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliott's 891. Green Bay has the league's top-rated run defense, allowing an average of only 75.8 yards per outing. However, Elliott gashed the Packers for 157 yards in the Cowboys' lopsided win at Green Bay on Oct. 16. Murray enters play Sunday with an average of 4.6 yards per rush. He has four games with at least 100 rushing yards, including twice in his last three outings.
Meanwhile, Green Bay figures to continue to throw the football a lot. Aaron Rodgers has averaged 45 pass attempts the last five games as the Packers compensate for injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery has been the starter there two of the last three games. The Titans have a top-10 run defense, giving up an average of just 96.4 yards, so Rodgers will look to exploit the hosts' shaky pass coverage.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Packers QB Aaron Rodgers vs. Titans DC Dick LeBeau. Rodgers and the Packers haven't been their usual selves this year, but he is still plenty dangerous. LeBeau will try to draft some exotic blitzes and coverage schemes to keep him off-balance if he can on Sunday.
--Titans QB Marcus Mariota vs. Packers CB HaHa Clinton Dix. Clinton Dix had two interceptions against Andrew Luck last week, and Mariota has had issues on occasion with putting the ball up for grabs with interceptions. The Chargers picked him off twice last Sunday. He will have to be careful with Clinton Dix showing a knack for finding the football.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Titans WR Rishard Matthews. After being relegated to a rotation with now-retired Andre Johnson in the first portion of the season, Matthews has emerged as a go-to target for Marcus Mariota. He now has 33 catches to lead Titans wide receivers and has five touchdown receptions.
INJURY REPORT: Green Bay -- Out: LB Clay Matthews (hamstring), CB Damarious Randall (groin), C J.C. Tretter (knee). Doubtful: TE Jared Cook (ankle). Questionable: S Micah Hyde (shoulder), RB James Starks (knee). Tennessee -- Questionable: LB Aaron Wallace (shoulder).
FAST FACTS: Packers WR Davante Adams has caught five TD passes in the past six games and has 29 catches over the past three. WR Randall Cobb has scored in three straight games. ... Packers WR/RB Ty Montgomery is averaging 107 scrimmage yards per game (67.3 receiving) over the past three. ... Packers LB Blake Martinez ranks third among NFC rookies with 44 tackles. ... Titans QB Marcus Mariota has now accounted for at least four TDs five times in his first 21 games -- most in NFL history. ... Titans RB DeMarco Murray is second in the NFL with 807 rushing yards. Since 2014, he the league with 3,354 rushing yards and 26 rushing TDs. ... Titans rookie WR Tajae Sharpe is third among rookies with 27 catches.
PREDICTION: Neither of these defenses has been able to stop teams with good quarterbacks recently. Both lost shootouts to Andrew Luck's Colts, so expect a close barnburner with Tennessee's running game making the difference.
OUR PICK: Titans, 35-33.
SERIES HISTORY: 20th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 10-9. Vikings are 6-4 at Washington, but lost their last meeting there, 38-26, when Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III ran 13 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns while passing for a third score. The Vikings have won the past two meetings, both at home in 2014 and 2013. Their last win at Washington came on Christmas Eve, 2011. Out of the playoff picture in a dismal season, they won after running back Adrian Peterson suffered a gruesome ACL tear. He would return the following season to win MVP while rushing for 2,097 yards. The teams have met five times in the playoffs. Washington leads that series 3-2, with the most memorable matchup being the 17-10 win at Washington in the NFC title game during the 1987 season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Vikings offense heads into its second game with interim coordinator Pat Shurmur calling the plays. Those who expected the change from Norv Turner (resigned last week) to be difficult on Sam Bradford should consider that the QB spent more of career with Shurmur -- first in St, Louis, then Philadelphia -- than he has since joining the Vikings at the beginning of this season.
Last week, Shurmur called a good game that disguised a line that is incapable of blocking long enough for Shurmur to call a slow-developing pass play.
Bradford must get the ball out quickly -- 25 of his 40 passes last week were completed either behind the line of scrimmage or within five yards of it -- and Shurmur needs to make sure they are spreading the plays from side to side to keep the Redskins guessing. If the running game gets going, the Vikings could also take an occasional shot down the field without it resulting in a sack or a pressured throwaway.
Minnesota's offense ranks 25th in the league in points per game (19.4) and is not good without star running back Adrian Peterson (torn meniscus, right knee), out since Sept. 18. That said, the Redskins aren't exactly a powerhouse up front, either. Something has to give there
Redskins coach Jay Gruden refused to say who would get the majority of the carries this week against Minnesota's formidable front seven. It will be difficult for Washington to run the ball anyway, but expect to see both Matt Jones and rookie Robert Kelley.
Jones, of course, missed the Cincinnati Game in London with a knee injury. Before that he found his way into Gruden's doghouse with a pair of fumbles against Detroit on Oct. 23 - one of them at the 5-yard line as Washington was driving for a touchdown.
Kelley is more fluid than Jones, a power back who doesn't always run like one. So expect Kelley to get the majority of the carries vs. the Vikings.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Redskins CB Josh Norman vs. Vikings WR Stefon Diggs. Norman has generally been trailing the opposition's best receiver in recent weeks. That is Diggs for the Vikings. He has a team-high 48 catches. The problem for Washington is that Diggs can line up inside or outside. Rookie slot corner Kendall Fuller could end up pulling duty here, too. At 6-foot, 191 pounds, Diggs will have to use his speed to get off the line fast against the bigger, more physical Norman (6-0, 200).
--Vikings DE Everson Griffen vs. Redskins LT Ty Nsekhe. After 19 sacks in a 5-0 start, the Vikings have only two sacks during their three-game losing streak. Both have come from Griffen, who has had one each in the past two weeks. He has six on the season. Nsekhe, a trusted backup for the Redskins the past two seasons, will start in place of All-Pro captain Trent Williams, who is suspended for the next four games. Nsekhe, hard to miss at 6-8, 325, started out in an Arena Football League developmental league before moving up to the AFL. He bounced from the Colts to the Rams to the Saints to Montreal of the CFL, then to Washington.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Vikings PK Blair Walsh. All but thrown out the door Monday and Tuesday, the Vikings did an about-face and decided, for now, to continue supporting their embattled kicker. It's hard to imagine how this week's handling of the kicking situation did anything but increase the noose around Walsh's neck after a horrendous game in the overtime loss to Detroit on Sunday. Walsh missed a game-tying PAT and had an off-target 46-yard go-ahead field goal attempt blocked. The latter led to a quick six-point swing as Detroit was able to kick a 53-yarder without getting a first down. Walsh has missed seven kicks in eight games since the 27-yard miss in the closing seconds of the 10-9 playoff loss to Seattle.
INJURY REPORT: Minnesota -- Out: DT Sharrif Floyd (knee), CB Marcus Sherels (ankle). Questionable: DT Linval Joseph (shoulder), G Zac Kerin (hand), CB Captain Munnerlyn (ankle), WR Laquon Treadwell (hamstring). Washington -- Doubtful: WR DeSean Jackson (shoulder). Questionable: S Will Blackmon (thumb), S Duke Ihenacho (concussion), T Morgan Moses .
FAST FACTS: Vikings QB Sam Bradford has thrown just one interception in seven games despite attempting 243 passes (37.1 pass attempts per game). Bradford's 243 attempts through seven games with the Vikings is the second most in franchise history (Warren Moon - 269 in 1994). WR Stefon Diggs' 13 catches last week were third-most in a game in franchise history. Running back Rickey Young had 15 against Washington in 1979. Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter had 14 against Arizona in 1994. . . . Redskins QB Kirk Cousins set career highs in his last game with 56 attempts, 38 completions and 458 passing yards in Washington's 27-27 tie against Cincinnati in London. It was Cousins' 15th career 300-plus yard passing game, tying a Washington-franchise record (Sonny Jurgensen). This will be Cousins' first career start against the Vikings.
PREDICTION: Despite the recent turmoil and two losses, the Vikings still have the league's No. 1-ranked defense against scoring (15.8) and something to build on offensively, regardless of ranking 32nd in total offense (298.8) and 31st in rushing (72.6).
OUR PICK: Vikings, 28-24.
Miami Dolphins (4-4) at San Diego Chargers (4-5)
SERIES HISTORY: 28th meeting. The Dolphins lead the series, 14-13.
The Chargers are glad to see the Dolphins -- at home. San Diego beat Miami in their last visit, 30-14, in 2015. When the Chargers battle the Dolphins in Miami trouble starts: six straight losses there for the Chargers. Any time these teams match up, the epic game from the 1981 playoffs comes to mind. The Chargers won in overtime. It remains one of the top contests in team, and league history, with the image of a spent Kellen Winslow being assisted off the field a hot, humid night. In the 1994 playoffs, the Chargers edged the visiting Dolphins, 22-21, in an AFC divisional game on their way to their lone Super Bowl.
KEYS TO THE GAME: After this week's elections, Chargers fans could be in a foul mood regardless of what they think about president-elect Donald Trump. A measure failed that would raise hotel occupancy taxes to help pay for a new stadium for the Chargers in San Diego and the future home of the franchise remains in doubt.
Getting back to football, both teams are on the run this season, Miami with Jay Ajayi and San Diego with Melvin Gordon. Ajayi has 646 yards rushing with 529 as a key in the Dolphins three straight wins. The Chargers counter with Melvin Gordon, who has 768 yards and nine TDs rushing and last week amassed 261 yards from scrimmage, 196 rushing, 65 receiving, second most in the history of this offensive-crazy franchise history.
Ajayi's success will be most important to help the Dolphins maintain ball control, meaning keep the ball away from Philip Rivers, the most under-appreciated QB in the NFL. He consistently leads an inconsistent Chargers lineup, this year completing 63.4 percent with 2,560 yards passing and a rating of 96.2.
San Diego is No. 5 in the NFL in run defense (85.3 yards per game), but Ajayi just gained 111 yards on the previous No. 1 (New York Jets). Conversely, the Dolphins are 30th in the league in run defense (136.1 yards per game).
Watch for the Chargers to be aggressive with Rivers early in attempt to get an early lead that forces the ball out of Ajayi's hands and into those of Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, whose passing game is 29th in the NFL with an 87.4 rating, eight TD passes and seven interceptions.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Chargers DE Joey Bosa vs. Dolphins RT Ja'Wuan James. Bosa, the No. 3 draft, has been outstanding. He has four sacks, 16 quarterback pressures, 16 tackles, six for losses in four games and could be a top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. James struggled early in the season, partly due to technique changes, and was benched for overtime of the Cleveland victory. He allowed at least two strip-sacks although he's been better recently. Still, this is a huge matchup. If James can't protect QB Ryan Tannehill the passing game becomes a major problem concern.
--Chargers running game vs. Dolphins run defense. Gordon was sensational in Sunday's win over the Titans, rushing for 196 yards and a score. Any offense with Philip Rivers at quarterback is apt to lean on the passing attack. But Rivers and others are more than happy to have Gordon shoulder his share in the name of balance and preventing hits to Rivers. Miami's defense against the rush is 30th in yards allowed per game. The matchup between Miami DT Ndamukong Suh and the Chargers' interior line, especially C Matt Slauson, will be worth watching. Suh must keep Chargers blockers busy so they can't get to the second level where the Dolphins linebackers include former Charger Donald Butler.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chargers LG Spencer Pulley. This undrafted rookie from Vanderbilt saw the field late in the game on Sunday, filling in for Orlando Franklin (concussion). Considering Franklin's plight, Pulley, who saw action in two games this year while also playing right guard, could have a significant role against the Dolphins.
INJURY REPORT: Miami -- Out: CB Xavien Howard (knee). Questionable: S Isa Abdul-Quddus (ankle), T Jermon Bushrod (shoulder), Leonte Carroo (knee), CB Chris Culliver (knee), TE MarQueis Gray (ankle), LB Jelani Jenkins, WR Jarvis Landry (shoulder), TE Dion Sims (concussion), G Anthony Steen (neck), WR Kenny Stills (calf). San Diego -- Out: LB Jatavis Brown (knee), WR Jeremy Butler (ankle), LB Denzel Perryman (hamstring). Doubtful: S Jahleel Addae (collarbone), WR Travis Benjamin (knee). Questionable: G Orlando Franklin (concussion), TE Hunter Henry (knee), CB Craig Mager (concussion), WR Tyrell Williams (knee).
FAST FACTS: Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry has 45 catches (9 per game) for 474 yards (94.8 per game) and a TD in last five road games. Since 2014, has 243 receptions, 4th in NFL. LB Kiko Alonso leads Dolphins with 67 tackles, including 30 tackles, 3 TFL and tow FRs in last three road games. DT Ndamukong Suh seeks sack in third consecutive game. Since rookie 2010 season, Suh has 46.5 sacks, tied for most by a DT. DE Cameron Wake had two sacks, two forced fumbles last week and made four sacks in last three games. ... Chargers won three of their past four games, including a 43-35 win over Tennessee last week as they scored two defensive TDs -- safety Dwight Lowery on a 36-yard fumble-return and CB Brandon Flowers on a 33-yard interception return. TE Antonio Gates is after TD catch in third consecutive game and Ranks second in NFL history among TEs with 108 TD catches.
PREDICTION: Winners of three out of last four -- including a split with Denver -- the Chargers are a nightmare for any NFL team but are in last place in the AFC West, best division in the league. They scored 30-plus points in six games and 43 last week. Four of their five losses were by less than a TD -- 6, 4, 1, 3 and 8 points.
OUR PICK: Chargers, 42-24.
San Francisco 49ers (1-7) at Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1)
SERIES HISTORY: 51st regular-season meeting. 49ers lead series, 29-21. The Cardinals have won three in a row, including 33-21 at Levi's Stadium on Oct. 6. The teams' last meeting in Arizona resulted in a 47-7 blowout in the Cardinals' favor. The 49ers' last win at Arizona was the result of a final-play field goal by Phil Dawson in a 23-20 triumph on Dec. 29, 2013.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The 49ers have little chance of stopping David Johnson, who rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns against them in Arizona's 33-21 road win in Week 5. So, for the second week in a row, it's all about Colin Kaepernick and his ability to keep San Francisco in the game. One positive: Blaine Gabbert rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown for the 49ers in the first meeting with the Cardinals, so perhaps the door is open for Kaepernick to complement his improved passing game with a few well-timed scrambles.
Nobody in the league gives up as many rushing yards as the 49ers, who are allowing a staggering 193 yards per game, so you can fully expect the Cardinals to unleash a healthy dose of Johnson. Arizona's second-year running back ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (705) and his eight rushing touchdowns are the second most in the league.
Because the 49ers are reeling, having lost seven in a row and have been unable to stop virtually any type of offense thrown at them, don't be surprised if Bruce Arians makes sure he gets plenty of touches for backup running back Andre Ellington, who hasn't had more than six carries in a game this season. Arians doesn't want to overwork Johnson.
The 49ers' secondary isn't all that bad, but it has allowed 18 passing touchdowns -- tied for the second-most in the league. Carson Palmer will test them early and often.
Defensively, the Cardinals will look to pressure Colin Kaepernick with multiple blitz schemes and try to force him into zone areas where they can anticipate his throws early, which is what they did to him a year ago when intercepting him four times and returning two of the picks for touchdowns.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--49ers QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Cardinals defense. Kaepernick rushed only five times for 23 yards last week against New Orleans, but the opportunity might be there to use his legs more often this week. That's because the Cardinals have allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL to quarterbacks (226), and only one team (Seattle, three) has given up more than the two rushing touchdowns Arizona has allowed to quarterbacks.
--Cardinals RB David Johnson vs. 49ers defense. The 49ers already have the record for most consecutive weeks allowing a 100-yard rusher (seven), and it's unlikely they'll be able to do much to prevent an eighth. Johnson followed up his 157-yard game against the 49ers in Week 5 with 111 and 113 against two much tougher defenses -- the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: 49ers NT Glenn Dorsey. The 49ers had been bringing Dorsey back slowly from knee surgery until they pressed him into 46 plays of action last week against New Orleans. With defensive end Arik Armstead out and nose tackle Quinton Dial moving outside, Dorsey figures to get another opportunity to make the kind of impact the 49ers envisioned when they wrested the former No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 draft away from the Kansas City Chiefs.
INJURY REPORT: San Francisco -- Out: LB Aaron Lynch (ankle). Questionable: RB Carlos Hyde (shoulder), CB Rashard Robinson (knee), WR Torrey Smith (back). Arizona -- -Out: S Tyrann Mathieu (shoulder), CB Tharold Simon (ankle). Questionable: LB Alex Okafor (calf).
FAST FACTS: 49ers K Phil Dawson needs three field goals to become the 10th player in NFL history to reach 400. Dawson had three field goals in the Week 9 loss to New Orleans. ... 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has 2,005 career rushing yards, making him the second QB in franchise history with 2,000. Steve Young was the first. ... 49ers WR Quinton Patton caught six passes for 106 yards last week, his first 100-yard game. ... Arizona QB Carson Palmer completed 35 of 46 (76.1 pct.) for 363 yards and three TDs in Week 8. He has averaged 307.8 yards in the last five meetings, with seven TD passes. ... Arizona RB David Johnson leads the NFL with 1,112 scrimmage yards and the NFC with eight rushing TDs. His eight straight games with 100 scrimmage yards are the most in franchise history.
PREDICTION: Johnson should run all over the 49ers, as many backs have, and the Cardinals should have an easy time getting back to .500.
OUR PICK: Cardinals, 34-17.
Dallas Cowboys (7-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
SERIES HISTORY: 28th regular-season meeting. The Cowboys lead the series, 15-13, and won the last meeting, 27-24, in 2012. The Cowboys have won five of the past seven and two of the past three in Pittsburgh. These two teams met in the Super Bowl three times, with the Steelers winning Super Bowls X and XIII and the Cowboys winning XXX.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Now that the presidential election is over, the high priority question for America's Team, and a lot of curious NFL fans, is -- Will a healthy Tony Romo regain his starting QB job from hot rookie Dak Prescott? As the Cowboys prepared for a battle between two seismic NFL franchises Sunday at Pittsburgh, the QB issue received even more intrigue when Dallas owner Jerry Jones said Romo may be active for this game and will upramp his workouts this week so as to be "ready to play at his top level." Coach Jason Garrett verified that whether Romo is active or plays is no longer a medical decision, making it the coach's call.
So Romo, 36, grows ever closer to a return from the compression fracture in his back. He is expected to show up initially, at least, as a backup after missing 12 games last season, twice fracturing his left collarbone and missing all eight games this season. He has not played in a regular-season game since last Thanksgiving.
But all that hubbub over the quarterback, although expected, may be a distraction from the reality that this Cowboys team runs, literally, on rookie back Ezekiel Elliott, who takes maximum advantage of the Cowboys' latest version of the best OL in the NFL.
The Steelers know they must slow the down the Cowboys' top-ranked rushing attack (165 yards per game). The Steelers bounced back from two bad games against the run with a good performance against Baltimore, limiting the Ravens to 50 yards on the ground. If the Steelers can slow Elliott they will put the game in the hands of the QB, probably Prescott.
When the Steelers have the ball, they must get QB Ben Roethlisberger off to a good start. Last week against the Ravens, the Steelers tried to establish the run to open up the passing game. Against the Cowboys, the Steelers should look to attack a Dallas secondary that will be without starting safety Barry Church and has been giving up 246 passing yards per game. The Cowboys are strong against the run and it would be foolish for the Steelers not to attack the weaker part of the equation.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Cowboys RB Jon Ezekiel Elliott vs. Steelers LB Ryan Shazier. Elliott leads the NFL with 891 yards rushing for the Cowboys' top-ranked rushing attack. Shazier is healthy again and last week spearheaded a rush defense that limited the Ravens to 50 yards on 29 carries.
--Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell vs. Cowboys LB Sean Lee. Bell is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league and Lee is one of the best cover linebackers. The Steelers are having trouble finding a competent No. 2 receiver after Antonio Brown, and Bell might be the best second option for Ben Roethlisberger in this game.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Steelers WR Sammie Coates. All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown came out after the Baltimore game and said someone has to step up if he is double- and triple-covered as he was against the Ravens. Coates was targeted five times against the Ravens and did not have a catch. He dropped a pass in the end zone with four minutes remaining that would have brought the Steelers within seven points with three timeouts remaining. Against the Cowboys, the Steelers need Coates to be the player he was early in the season when he was catching more deep balls than anyone else in the NFL.
INJURY REPORT: Dallas -- Out: S Barry Church (forearm), CB Morris Claiborne (groin), Questionable: WR Dez Bryant (knee), DE Ryan Davis (hamstring), T Chaz Green (foot, back), DE Demarcus Lawrence (back, shoulder), G Ronald Leary (concussion), QB Tony Romo (back), T Tyron Smith (back, hip). Pittsburgh -- Out: S Jordan Dangerfield (groin), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot), WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder), RB DeAngelo Williams (knee).
FAST FACTS: A Cowboys win would give them eight straight for the first time since 1977, tying a franchise record. They would be 8-1 for the eighth time in franchise history, the last being in 2007. Dak Prescott is the first rookie QB in the Super Bowl era to start and win seven of his first eight games of a season. He is also the first rookie QB to have six starts with a 100-plus passer rating within his first eight games. Elliott, the rookie RB, is one of three players in league history (Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and future HOFer Adrian Peterson) to rush for at least 875 yards (891) and seven touchdowns in his first eight games. . . . The Steelers won seven of last eight games at home while outscoring opponents 261-151. Since the start of the 2013 season, WR Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 430 catches, 5,708 receiving yards and 37 TD receptions. Over that same span, teammate/RB Le'Veon Bell leads the league averaging 120.6 scrimmage yards per game (minimum 20 games).
PREDICTION: Shocking success and the QB situation are on the verge of becoming a distraction for the Cowboys, who may find that visiting Pittsburgh is not a fun road trip, especially if Big Ben is on his game at QB.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 28-21.
Seattle Seahawks (5-2-1) at New England Patriots (7-1)
SERIES HISTORY: 17th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 8-8. Seahawks won last regular season meeting, 24-23, in Seattle in 2012. Seahawks have not played in New England since 2004, a 30-20 Pats win. This is first meeting between the two teams since Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX 28-24 ikn a game highlighted by an infamous play-call by Seattle af the end of the game.
KEYS TO THE GAME: There may be some irony in the fact that the Seahawks don't have a tough running game to ignore this time against the Patriots. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks eschewed the run on the one-yard line with RB Marshawn Lynch all beast-moded and ready to take the ball. This was in the final minutes with a go-ahead TD on the line.
Instead, the Seahawks decided to pass and the result was one of the most dramatic moments in SB history as undrafted rookie CB Malcolm Butler intervened on a slant pattern and intercepted the ball at the goal line.
Butler is now thought to be one of the best in the game and Lynch is in retirement and out of sight except for TV commercials and a joy ride around the Seahawks' home field in a golf cart with mom.
Now the Seahawks have an ineffectual run game and that will put pressure on the offensive line to protect QB Russell Wilson, who is slowly regaining his mobility after being slowed by a series of injuries.
The absence of Seahawks DE Michael Bennett (knee scope) is a plus for a Patriots line that struggled to keep pressure off QB Tom Brady in the three games leading up to the bye week. Bennett tormented Brady in Super Bowl XLIX, registering four QB hits.
The Seahawks are solid against both the run and the pass, fielding the No. 9 defense in terms of yards and the No. 3 unit in points allowed. But the Patriots offense is rolling with QB Tom Brady all re-inflated. New England should try to throw early and set up the LeGarrette Blount run game.
Patriots S Devin McCourty practices against the first two each day and will spend this week preparing for the last one. He explained the similarities among the three.
"When you combine all three of those guys, they're all very good at going vertical, getting down the field," McCourty said, before talking about Graham's two scores on Monday to help beat the Bills. "Their size is really what makes it really tough to cover all three of those guys because once they get vertical and it's any type of jump ball - you saw Monday night a ball that, for a corner, is just out of your reach."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Seattle's safeties and linebackers. Gronkowski hit the Patriots bye week healthy and producing like never before, leading the NFL with a 22.0 yards-per-catch average. He's the centerpiece of the deep New England passing attack, teams either forced to use multiple bodies to deal with the All-Pro to open things up for others or take their chances with Gronkowski in one-on-one battles that he so often wins. Kam Chancellor's health will be key as the Seahawks decide how to deal with Gronk. Both times New England managed to get Gronkowski matched up on LB K. J. Wright in one-on-one matchups in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks paid. He caught a 22-yard touchdown and a 13-yarder from Brady. Seattle will try to limit the chances Gronkowski will get in similar circumstances.
--Seahawks WR Jermaine Kearse vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. Kearse made an incredible juggling one-handed catch on the final drive of Super Bowl XLIX against Butler. Butler came back and intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line to preserve a victory for New England. The two will likely line up against each other frequently on Sunday night.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Seahawks WR Jermaine Kearse. A somewhat forgotten target in Seattle's passing attack, Kearse is capable of reminding that he is around. Alongside Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett, Kearse hasn't been a prominent a target this year. But with Graham playing back to All-Pro form and the Patriots known for focusing on taking away key weapons, Kearse may benefit. He has 24 catches for 281 yards and is still a trusted option by QB Russell Wilson.
INJURY REPORT: Seattle -- Out: DE Michael Bennett (knee), RB Thomas Rawls (fibula). Questionable: CB DeAndre Elliott (hamstring), RB Christine Michael (hamstring), T Bradley Sowell (knee), TE Luke Willson (knee). New England -- Questionable: TE Martellus Bennett (ankle), DT Alan Branch (back), WR Julian Edelman (foot), WR Chris Hogan (back).
FAST FACTS: Seahawks DE Cliff Avril has eight sacks in his past five games, including at least one in all five contests. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in October and leads the NFC with nine sacks. ... The Patriots have not thrown an interception this season and can become the first team since the 1960 Cleveland Browns to have zero interceptions in a team's first nine games. They attempted 249 passes by three different quarterbacks -- Tom Brady (134), Jimmy Garoppolo (60), and rookie Jacoby Brissett (55).
PREDICTION: The Seahawks have benefitted from interesting officiating calls and non-calls in three wins, most recently an infamous off-sides penalty against that should have been a personal foul, followed by more screw-ups by the officials that culminated with Buffalo missing a FG. Most the strange calls and non-calls involve physical CB Richard Sherman. Don't expect him to get the benefit of doubt in New England. The Patriots have more balance and it should decide this one.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 32-21.