NFL Week 9: Everything You Need to Know for Sunday's Games
We're officially entering the second half of the 2015 NFL season, and the playoff race is shaping up to be a terrific one.
The Cincinnati Bengals continued to show they are legitimate title contenders with a commanding 31-10 win over the Cleveland Browns Thursday night. The victory moved Cincinnati to 8-0 and keeps the team in the running for a potential first-round playoff bye.
The New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos also sit in the undefeated clubhouse, and all three will be in action Sunday. We'll see 19 other teams as well. Though only four teams can exit the weekend with an unblemished record, several can continue to strengthen their case for a 2015 playoff berth.
Will the 6-1 Green Bay Packers rebound from last week's loss to the Broncos? With the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets or Oakland Raiders continue to push toward a playoff spot? We'll find out Sunday as Week 9 continues to unfold.
Here's everything you need to know about Sunday's games.
Are the Raiders Actually...Good?
The Oakland Raiders have been one of the NFL's more downtrodden franchises for so long that it almost seems odd to acknowledge they might be a legitimate playoff contender. Oakland is 4-3 and coming off convincing wins over the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets.
If the season ended today, the Raiders would be the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Oakland still has nine games to play, of course, so crowning the team now would be premature. However, a win Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers would certainly add some legitimacy to the idea.
The Raiders will be traveling across the country, playing in an early time slot and battling a Pittsburgh team that is clawing for its own second-half playoff push. The Steelers might not be at full strength now that running back Le'Veon Bell is out for the season; however, they do have Ben Roethlisberger back under center and are a dangerous team.
If Oakland can pull out a win in this difficult road matchup, it might just be time to admit that the Raiders have completed their return to relevance.
Can Aaron Rodgers Rebound in Carolina?
Last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers went into Denver and caught a good old-fashioned thrashing at the hands of the Broncos. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (14-of-22 for 77 yards) had perhaps the worst game of his life.
This doesn't mean the Packers aren't one of the top teams in the NFC or that Rodgers isn't still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The Packers just met a team with an elite defense and a Hall of Fame quarterback who was firing on all cylinders.
The Packers, and Rodgers, will rebound.
The question is whether or not he can rebound this week against the undefeated Carolina Panthers. This will be another road game against a top NFC contender with a top-notch pass defense.
Pro Football Focus rates the Broncos second overall in pass coverage. The Panthers are right behind them at third.
The Packers will need a bounce-back game from Rodgers to win this one, but the Panthers are geared up to make sure it doesn't happen.
"I'm sitting back there watching film on this guy and the stuff he's able to do, man, I'm going to have to plaster all night and not take any plays off," Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said of Rodgers, per David Newton of ESPN.com.
Does Anyone Want to Win the AFC South?
Last season, the Panthers won the NFC South with a record of 7-8-1. This season, an even worse record might be good enough to win the AFC South. The question is if any of the four teams in the conference really want to claim the title.
The Indianapolis Colts are in first place with a 3-5 record. The Houston Texans also have a 3-5 record, while the Jacksonville Jaguars sit at 2-5, and the Tennessee Titans are at 1-6.
Houston is the only one of the four teams not in action this weekend.
If any of the teams in the AFC South can string together a few wins, it will have an opportunity to take control of the division. However, it seems these teams are closer to collapsing than dominating.
The Titans recently made the decision to fire head coach Ken Whisenhunt and replace him with Mike Mularkey on an interim basis. The Colts fired offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and replaced him with Rob Chudzinski.
Dysfunction seems to be the theme in the AFC South this season, but one of this bunch is going to be in the postseason at the end of the year.
Game of the Day
What: Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers
When: 1 p.m. ET
Aaron Rodgers might be the best quarterback in the NFL, but the Denver Broncos embarrassed him and his Green Bay Packers last week. The Packers lost 29-10, and Rogers had arguably the worst game (14-of-22 for 77 yards) of his career.
However, this doesn't mean that Green Bay has suddenly gone from contender to also-ran. On the contrary, this team should be there in the end when the NFC determines its representative for Super Bowl 50.
The Packers just ran into a Broncos team that finally figured everything out.
On Sunday afternoon, the Packers are going up against another team that seems to have figured it out this season. Fresh off an incredible game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Carolina Panthers are undefeated and riding a tidal wave of momentum. The Packers, meanwhile, are seeking redemption.
This could well be a preview of this year's NFC title game, as these two teams are looking like the class of the conference in 2015. Combined, they have a 13-1 record and a pair of quarterbacks who could be legitimate MVP candidates at season's end.
Though Rodgers regularly hauls in the accolades, Carolina's Cam Newton has been equally responsible for his team's success. On Sunday, the two quarterbacks should put on one heck of a show.
Honorable Mention: St. Louis Rams at Minnesota Vikings
We might have another playoff preview in the early afternoon game between the St. Louis Rams and the Minnesota Vikings. Both teams seem to be trending upward and feature running backs who are worth the price of admission by themselves.
Everyone knows that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has been the best NFL runner of his generation, and with nearly 11,000 yards rushing and 94 total touchdowns on his resume, he might be a future Hall of Famer.
However, Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley appears set on supplanting Peterson's as the best back in the NFL today. Gurley is a game-changer in the truest sense and already racked up 575 yards rushing and five total touchdowns in just five appearances.
This game isn't exactly going to be one of those past versus future matchups because Peterson isn't likely to go anywhere any time soon. However, this is going to be a fun one to watch, and these teams will be worth following as the playoffs approach.
Stats of the Week
Combined touchdown passes thrown by Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Saints quarterback Drew Brees in last Sunday's 52-49 shootout. Brees threw seven, which tied the NFL single-game record.
Yards passing by Aaron Rodgers in last week's loss to Denver. While Eli and Brees both shined last week, Rodgers did not.
Rushing yards by Rams running back Todd Gurley over his first four starts. He now holds the NFL record for yards rushing in the first four starts of a pro career. The previous record was 539, set by Lions running back Billy Sims in 1980.
Interceptions thrown by Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning this season. He had arguably his best game of the season (21-of-29 for 340 yards) last week but did throw an interception. He has thrown at last one pick in every game this year.
Interception thrown by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady all season.
Who Is Favored?
Here are the odds for Sunday's games, via Odds Shark:
|Game Time (ET)||Away Team||Home Team||Favorite|
|1 p.m.||Miami||Buffalo||Buffalo -2.5|
|1 p.m.||Green Bay||Carolina||Green Bay -2.5|
|1 p.m.||St. Louis||Minnesota||Even|
|1 p.m.||Washington||New England||New England -15|
|1 p.m.||Tennessee||New Orleans||New Orleans -9|
|1 p.m.||Jacksonville||NY Jets||NY Jets -9|
|1 p.m.||Oakland||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh -4.5|
|1 p.m.||Atlanta||San Francisco||Atlanta -7.5|
|4:05 p.m.||NY Giants||Tampa Bay||NY Giant -2.5|
|4:25 p.m.||Denver||Indianapolis||Denver -5|
|8:30 p.m.||Philadelphia||Dallas||Philadelphia -3|
Matchups to Watch
DeMarco Murray vs. Dallas Run Defense
Former Cowboys running back makes his return to Dallas Sunday night as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Though last year's rushing leader has mostly been a disappointment in Philadelphia (just 307 yards and 3.5 yards per carry), he should have an opportunity to get going against his former team. Dallas is only allowing an average of 103 yards per game on the ground, but the team is rated just 29th in run Defense by Pro Football Focus.
DeAngelo Williams vs. Raiders Run Defense
The 4-4 Steelers have an opportunity to get back into the AFC playoff picture this week if they can pick up a home win against the Raiders. However, the Steelers will have to give it a go without star running back Le'Veon Bell.
With Bell out for the season, the Steelers will lean heavily on veteran backup DeAngelo Williams, who shined as a starter during Bell's suspension.
In the first two games of the season, Williams rushed for 204 yards and three touchdowns. This week, he'll try to leap back into that starter's role against a criminally underrated Raiders run defense. Oakland is ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed with just 82.9 per game.
The Steelers do have Roethlisberger back from his knee injury, but if Williams cannot get the running game going, the Raiders will have an opportunity to harass the veteran signal-caller with Khalil Mack and the pass rush.
Andrew Luck vs. the Broncos Pass Rush
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has had his ups and downs this season, with far more downs than we saw over the first three years of his career. He's been sacked 14 times, has thrown 12 interceptions and owns a dismal passer rating of 71.6.
Luck's struggles have probably played a role in the decision to fire offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
“Part of me does, yeah,” Luck recently told Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, when asked if he thought he was responsible for Hamilton's departure.
Rob Chudzinski will get his opportunity to try turning the Luck train around this Sunday, but he'll be doing it against a stellar Broncos defense. Pro Football Focus rates the Broncos defense second in pass coverage, second in pass rush, third in run defense and first overall.
Luck has the talent and the tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He hasn't looked like it often this year, but a win over the Broncos would put his early struggles firmly in the rearview.
Each Week, we'll take a look at the most significant injuries from around the league.
Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants (out)
Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reports that the Giants have ruled out wide receiver Victor Cruz (calf), along with tight end Larry Donnell (neck), cornerback Prince Amukamara (pectoral) and linebacker Jon Beason (knee, ankle).
Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears (out)
The Bears have announced that running back Matt Forte (knee) and wide receiver Eddie Royal (knee) will miss Sunday's game against the Chargers. Center Hroniss Grasu (neck) is doubtful.
Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles (out)
The Eagles will be without starting left tackle Jason Peters (back) this week against Dallas. According to ESPN's Phil Sheridan, the team will move Lane Johnson over from right tackle to the left side.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers (out)
According to the 49ers injury report, San Francisco will be without running back Carlos Hyde (foot) and running back Mike Davis (hand) against the Falcons.
Marquise Lee, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (doubtful)
Jaguars wide receiver Marquise Lee is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury. He has only appeared in two games this season and hasn't played since Week 3.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts (questionable)
Hilton is listed as questionable with a foot injury. According to Kevin Bowen of Colts.com, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano has said that while Hilton didn't practice this week, he was running well on the treadmill.
Tre' Jackson, G, New England Patriots (out)
According to the Patriots injury report, guard Tre' Jackson (knee) and defensive end Jabaal Sheard (ankle) have both been ruled out. Guard Shaq Mason (knee) is questionable.
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Minnesota Vikings (out)
The Vikings have ruled out defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (knee) and linebacker Eric Kendricks (ribs) against the Rams. Linebacker Anthony Barr (back) is questionable
Chris Long, DE, St. Louis Rams (out)
The Rams will be without defensive end Chris Long (knee) against the Vikings. Defensive end Robert Quinn (knee) is questionable.
Multiple Players, Washington Redskins (questionable)
Washington hasn't ruled any players out against the Patriots, but cornerback DeAngelo Hall (toe), wide receiver DeSean Jackson (hamstring), linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (hand), center Kory Lichtensteiger (neck), cornerback Chris Culliver (knee) and cornerback Bashaud Breeland (hamstring) are all listed as questionable.
Each week, we'll take a look at picks and predictions from some of the top Bleacher Report NFL writers. We'll also spotlight the experts' results on a week-to-week basis.