Everything you need to know as kickoff approaches...
Key game-time decisions
All players questionable unless noted
Washington Redskins: CB Bashaud Breeland (knee, groin), WR Jamison Crowder (hamstring), RB Rob Kelley (ankle), S Montae Nicholson (shoulder, shoulder), G Brandon Scherff (knee), LB Martrell Spaight (shoulder)
Kelly, Breeland, and Scherff were limited all week. Crowder sat out all week. The Redskins ruled OUT: DE Matt Ioannidis (hand), G Shawn Lauvao (stinger), TE Niles Paul (concussion), and TE Jordan Reed (hamstring). On an extensive injury report, Washington also has three offensive linemen listed as DOUBTFUL: C Spencer Long (knee, knee), T Ty Nsekhe (core muscle), T Trent Williams (knee). Woof.
Walker was limited in practice on Friday after missing sessions earlier in the week.
Sanders was full-go on Friday, a good sign for his availability after missing the past two games.
Ellington was limited all week. Dansby returned on Friday on a limited basis.
San Francisco 49ers: LB Reuben Foster (ribs)
Foster was limited on Friday. The list of Niners ruled OUT is grisly: WR Pierre Garcon (neck), T Garry Gilliam (knee), DT D.J. Jones (knee), DE Aaron Lynch (calf), T Joe Staley (eye), DE Solomon Thomas (knee), and CB K'Waun Williams (quadricep).
Baltimore Ravens: QB Joe Flacco (concussion), TE Nick Boyle (toe), C Ryan Jensen (shoulder), WR Jeremy Maclin (shoulder), TE Vince Mayle (concussion), DT Michael Pierce (illness), CB Jimmy Smith (achilles), T Ronnie Stanley (shoulder), WR Mike Wallace (back), S Lardarius Webb (concussion), TE Maxx Williams (ankle), DT Tim Williams (thigh)
Flacco is expected to play. Wallace, both Williams, and Smith were full-go Friday. Maclin and Stanley were limited all week.
The trio was limited on Friday. Lee had missed the two previous practices.
Ertz was limited this week, but coach Doug Pederson said Friday the tight end will play. Darby was again limited all week.
Indianapolis Colts: T Anthony Castonzo (knee)
The key offensive tackle was listed as limited on Friday after missing practices on Wednesday and Thursday. In other news, starting cornerback Vontae Davis did not make the trip with the team to Houston and is listed as out (non-injury related).
Houston Texans: CB Johnathan Joseph (shin, quadricep)
Joseph was limited in practice this week.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Justin Houston (knee)
Beasley was full-go on Friday. Collins sat out all week.
New York Giants: CB Donte Deayon (ankle)
Winston was again full-go on Friday. The QB did participate on a limited basis on Wednesday and Thursday this week. He'll suit up. The Bucs ruled out CB Brent Grimes (shoulder).
Each player was limited on Friday.
Cutler is expected to play. Parker was full-go all week and expected to return to the lineup.
Detroit Lions: DE Ezekiel Ansah (knee)
Kenny Golladay is DOUBTFUL to play with a hamstring injury.
Colts at Texans (indoors) -- 76 degrees, mostly cloudy
Bengals at Jaguars -- 75 degrees, mostly cloudy, winds 11 mph
Buccaneers at Saints (indoors) -- 75 degrees, mostly cloudy
Rams at Giants -- 60 degrees, light rain (27 percent chance)
Falcons at Panthers -- 65 degrees, mostly cloudy
Broncos at Eagles -- 62 degrees, overcast, chance of rain (15 percent)
Ravens at Titans -- 71 degrees, mostly cloudy, winds 12 mph
Cardinals at 49ers -- 56 degrees, partly cloudy
Redskins at Seahawks -- 40 degrees, light rain (34 percent chance)
Chiefs at Cowboys (indoors) -- 83 degrees, partly cloudy, winds 15 mph
Raiders at Dolphins (SNF) -- 79 degrees, partly cloudy
Lions at Packers (MNF) -- 35 degrees, mostly cloudy
What to Watch For
Facing a Panthers defense that excels at stuffing the run, the Falcons need Matt Ryan to snap out of his season-long malaise. Will Atlanta finally funnel the offense through Julio Jones? The All-Pro receiver is on pace for one of the worst seasons of his career -- 85 catches, 1,234 receiving yards, two TDs. Jones has been a fighter jet lost at sea much of the season, earning only one 100-yard game and 10-plus targets in only two of seven matchups (for reference, he had 10-plus targets in 18 of 30 games from 2015-16). Matching up against Panthers corner James Bradberry is no picnic, but the Falcons need to rely on Jones on Sunday to keep pace in the NFC South.
What will life be like for Cam Newton the rest of this season without Kelvin Benjamin? Carolina traded away their top target on Tuesday. When ex-GM Dave Gettleman surrounded Newton with Benjamin and Devin Funchess the rationale was to give the QB big targets who can corral Cam's frequent high throws. The Panthers' party line for Tuesday's jettisoning of Benjamin was to get more speed on the field in hopes to open up a putrid run game. Newton will now be throwing to Funchess, Russell Shepard, and rookie Curtis Samuel as his receivers. Samuel appears to be the key but has just seven receptions on the season. Christian McCaffrey will continue to play a huge role in the passing game, but where will Newton go when he needs a big play, especially in the red zone where Benjamin thrived? Sunday's division tilt will hopefully provide some answers as to how OC Mike Shula plans to solve the riddle.
NFL Research stat of the week: Both Cam Newton (in 2016) and Matt Ryan (in 2017) followed up their MVP campaigns by posting the NFL's biggest drop-off in passer rating the following year: Newton: 99.4 to 75.8 (-23.6); Ryan: 117.1 to 92.3 (-24.8).
Let's start with the brutal ACL injury to Deshaun Watson that wiped out the rest of the season for one of the most entertaining football players on the planet. Going from Watson to Tom Savage is like being transported from an adrenaline-pumping rave to an 18th-century tea party. Bill O'Brien benched Savage after two quarters this season because the pocket-statue took six sacks and lost two fumbles in one half. Behind a still-struggling offensive line, the Texans offense must completely change to compensate for Savage under center. On the plus side, the Texans face a Colts defense that is among the worst in the NFL, including a pass D ranked 31st in the NFL, allowing 290.4 pass YPG.
On to the other team that is in a QB quagmire. The Colts announced this week that Andrew Luck is done for the season. At least Indy has been breaking in a young quarterback the past several weeks, albeit to mixed results. Jacoby Brissett has shown spurts of impressive play, owns a big arm and elusiveness outside the pocket. However, the second-year quarterback tends to hold the ball too long, suffers from stretches of inaccuracy in the pocket, and is still growing on a decision-making level. Sunday, he faces a Texans secondary that has repeatedly been scorched this season. It's time for T.Y. Hilton to make a play or three. The speedy wideout hasn't caught more than two passes or gone for more than 27 yards in any of the past three contests. If Hilton wants to be known as more than a Luck byproduct, he must start starring for his young quarterback.
NFL Research stat of the week: What did the Texans lose after Deshaun Watson's injury? Oh, just a QB who was on pace to throw 43 passing touchdowns this season, which would have been 17 more than any other rookie in NFL history.
Andy Dalton has been under siege this season behind a faltering offensive line, and facing Sacksonville provides no reprieve. The Jags bring wave after wave of pass rushers, and Dalton historically collapses under such pressure. Teams have successfully combated Jacksonville's pass rush by going to the ground, which could set up for a big day Joe Mixon, who has yet to receive 20 carries in one game. Will the Jags trade for Marcell Dareus pay immediate dividends and plug the gaps up the middle? On the outside, A.J. Green faces off against A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. Green is fourth in the NFL with 572 receiving yards this season but is coming off back-to-back sub-par weeks with fewer than four catches and 50 yards each game. Meanwhile, Bouye and Ramsey are among the top five in passer rating against this season. Dalton won't be able to avoid the duo all game. If Green doesn't win one-on-one battles Sunday, we could see a pick-barrage in Jacksonville.
Following the bye week, Jacksonville gets its offensive engine back. Leonard Fournette returns after missing Week 7 with an ankle injury. The rookie leads the NFL in rushing YPG (99.3) this season and is averaging 21.7 carries per game -- would be most by a rookie since Julius Jones in 2004 (24.6). The bulldozing Fournette key's a run-first, run-always, run-till-your-down-big offense by keeping Blake Bortles on schedule and busting out a few big runs. The Bengals defense will do everything to bottle up Fournette and force Bortles to beat a good secondary. Cincy ranks in the top-10 against the run, according to Football Outsider's metrics, and is led by hard-hitting linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The collisions between Burfict and Fournette could be epic.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Jaguars have played only one game decided by single digits this season (fewest in NFL): Wins by 22, 37, 21, and 27 points (all by 20-plus points). Losses by 21, 3, and 10 points (2 of 3 by double digits).
Is this the week Dirk Koetter pounds the ball with Doug Martin? The running back was the Bucs best offensive player last week, dashing for 71 yards on 18 carries against a very good run D, but too many negative runs behind a porous offensive line put the offense in a bind. Facing a Saints run D that is rated 29th by Football Outsiders, Martin should find more room to scamper Sunday at the Superdome. Getting the ground game going early would take pressure off Jameis Winston and keep Drew Brees on the sideline. I'm also excited to watch the matchup between Mike Evans and rookie corner Marshon Lattimore. The first-year DB has been ridiculously good of late, allowing a 22.5 passer rating since Week 3 (1st in NFL, min. 20 targets). Evans has won his share of matchups against physical corners in the past, which makes this one of the best WR-CB battles of the weekend.
The Saints have ridden Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to great success during their five-game winning streak, but Sunday the biggest advantage lies in Michael Thomas and Drew Brees. The Bucs pass defense is among the worst in the NFL, owning the 32nd placement in Football Outsiders' DVOA. Injuries have played a part, but Tampa has been burned deep even when all their top defensive backs have been on the field. The Saints tandem of Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. have destroyed defenses on run-after-catch passes this season and should find seams over the middle. After two horrific fumbles last week, it will be interesting to see if Sean Payton goes back to Ingram if the Saints are trying to salt away the clock with a lead.
The Rams and Giants are like two ships passing in the night. One is a party boat boasting a hot-shot coach, his young, improving signal caller, and a pro bowl running back. The other is an old tugboat with a leader trying to prevent a mutiny, a grizzled quarterback who can't do it on his own, and a skeleton crew barely able keep things afloat.
The Rams are averaging 30-plus points per game for the first time since 2001 on the back of Todd Gurley and an improved Jared Goff. Goff's passer rating increase of 26.7 from 2016 to 2017 is the biggest improvement among any QB (min. 100 attempts in each season). Both Goff and Gurley have an advantage over a Giants defense that is mediocre versus both the run and pass. With the Giants' best cornerback, Janoris Jenkins, suspended by the team this week, we'll see if Sammy Watkins breaks out of a slumber. Over the past four games, Watkins has combined for five catches and 50 yards.
Where does Eli Manning turn on offense? In Week 7, the Giants had a season-low 177 yards of total offense. For the season, Big Blue ranks 30th in points per game (16.0), and 27th in total yards per game (296.4). Facing Wade Phillips' defense holds no on-paper advantage for Ben McAdoo's offense. Getting Sterling Shepard (ankle) back is a plus. Evan Engram continues to be Manning's best option on offense but faces an L.A. D that has given up the second-fewest yards to tight ends this season.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Rams are one of two teams to surpass their 2016 win total in 2017: 5-2 in 2017, 4-12 in 2016 -- Jaguars: 4-3 in 2017, 3-13 in 2016.
The Giants are one of two teams to surpass their 2016 loss total in 2017: 1-6 in 2017, 11-5 in 2016 -- Raiders: 3-5 in 2017, 12-4 in 2016.
The Broncos are going back to Brock. Peyton Manning's former backup returns as a starter behind a porous offensive line that got Trevor Siemian pulverized. It will be interesting to see if Osweiler, a statuesque quarterback, will be able to handle the pressure supplied by Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, etc. The Eagles lead the NFL in QB hits this season. If Brock doesn't get the ball out quick, he could be broken in half in Philly. Emmanuel Sanders' potential return would be a big boon for the quarterback. If Osweiler gets time to throw he could find some space. The Eagles' back end has given up big plays this season, allowing 256.8 pass YPG (26th in NFL).
The Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi this week but will likely bring the running back along slowly. The matchup to watch is Carson Wentz versus the Broncos' "No Fly Zone." The MVP candidate has been a marvel this season, leading the NFL with 19 passing TDs and averaging 7.9 air yards per completion, but he's had his ups and downs. Sunday's game against Chris Harris, Aqib Talib et al. will be Wentz' stiffest test of the season. Wentz has shown fearlessness passing into tight windows. He'll have to do so again Sunday against Denver. The Broncos defense got picked apart by tight end Travis Kelce last week, so expect Wentz to look towards his BFF Zach Ertz often.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Broncos pass rush has generated pressure on just 6.5 percent of pass plays this season (worst rate in NFL) -- 17 sacks through first seven games (2.4 sacks/game, T-13th in NFL). Von Miller leads the team in sacks this season (7.0). No other DEN player has more than three sacks this season (Barrett, 3.0).
Alex Collins took ahold of the lead-back role in Baltimore's offense last week, pulverizing his way for 113 yards. Collins leads the NFL with 6.0 yards/carry this season (among 49 rushing qualifiers). Even with Joe Flacco not missing a start after being knocked out last week, the Ravens should lean on Collins, against a solid Titans defensive front ranked in the top-10 versus the run. When the Ravens run game is churning out yards, it opens up the play action for Flacco, and the Tennessee secondary has been lit up this season. Ideally, Baltimore's offense will get back to what Flacco runs best: a grinding ground game complemented by a few deep shots mixed in to stretch the defense.
Since returning from a hamstring injury, Marcus Mariota has not looked his sharpest, especially as a runner, logging just four rushing yards per game over the last two tilts, after opening the season with a 29.0 average. Did the bye week do enough to heal the hammy so the speedy runner can be unleashed? The Titans run struggles have coincided with Mariota's restriction. When there is no threat of the QB scampering, everything becomes restricted for Tennessee's offense. With Baltimore boasting one of the top passing defenses in the NFL, the Titans need DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to plow through the Ravens' front in order to stay atop the AFC South.
NFL Research stat of the week: Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense have not been able to match their red zone success from a season ago:
TEN in 2017: 41.2 percent red zone TD efficiency (31st in NFL)
TEN in 2016: 72.0 percent red zone TD efficiency (best in NFL)
With Drew Stanton starting under center, the Cardinals will ride Adrian Peterson. With Carson Palmer at quarterback, the Cards average 38.5 run plays per game, but that number rises to 44.2 in Stanton's nine career starts with the Cardinals. Against a 49ers defense that hasn't stopped so much as a teenage pillow fight this season, Peterson should be able to plow his way for chunk gains Sunday. All Day galloped for 134 yards in his first start with Arizona, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He was slowed in his second, going for 21 yards and 1.9 yards per tote. Which performance is the outlier and which closer to the real deal?
C.J. Beathard gets perhaps one last chance to lead the 49ers in his rookie campaign. Sadly, the quarterback is being tossed into harm's way without his blindside blocker, Joe Staley (orbital fracture), and his top target Pierre Garcon (neck; IR). Behind a banged-up O-line with minimal receiving targets it will likely be difficult for Beathard to take advantage of the Cardinals biggest weakness: Corners not named Patrick Peterson. If the 49ers' offense puts up a paltry showing Sunday, it could give the team brass more reason to hold out new QB Jimmy Garoppolo at least a few additional weeks.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Cardinals are now the only team in the NFL without their leading passer (Palmer) and leading rusher (David Johnson) from 2016.
The ship is sinking beneath Kirk Cousins' feet. The quarterback was pulverized last week behind an offensive line that allowed four sacks and eight QB hits. The outlook doesn't look any better against Seattle's defensive front. Trent Williams is doubtful to play, guard Shawn Lauvao is out, and guard Brandon Scherff is also questionable. With Jordan Reed out and the receiving corps not helping out Cousins at all, it will again be the Chris Thompson-show this week. The only consistent playmaker for Washington leads the team in rushing yards (231) and receiving yards (442) this season. With Earl Thomas out, at least Cousins could get some reprieve down the seam on versus Seattle. The Seahawks have allowed a 96.2 passer rating sans Thomas the past two years while surrendering a 77.6 rating with the rangy safety.
Will the acquisition of Duane Brown offer immediate dividends for a heretofore disastrous offensive line? Russell Wilson has been sacked 221 times since entering the NFL in 2012 (most in the league). Wilson has also taken the most QB hits since 2012 (511). The All-World quarterback performs magic each week to keep from getting pulverized. Wilson makes plays even CGI artists couldn't conjure. Will adding Brown take pressure off Wilson? Will the left tackle also help improve a running game that can't pick up 10 yards? The Seahawks plan to ride Eddie Lacy more this week, but if the blocking doesn't improve that experiment won't last more than a half.
NFL Research stat of the week: Russell Wilson has 300-plus pass yards and 3-plus passing TDs in each of his last two games. It's the first back-to-back 300-yard games of his career. Most passing yards (786) and passing TD (7) in the NFL in last two weeks.
Let's begin in K.C. where Alex Smith has led a big-play barrage, leading the NFL in pass yards per attempt (8.4) and passer rating (115.4) this season. The threat of the deep ball should help open up the running game for Kareem Hunt, who has been stymied versus superior run defenses the past few weeks. Hunt is the only player with over 1,000 scrimmage yards this season but has been held under 50 yards rushing two of the past three weeks. The Cowboys run defense ranks 30th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA. Dallas has been much better with Sean Lee in the lineup, but it's a defense Hunt could run over Sunday.
Ezekiel Elliott is back in action. It takes a law degree to keep up with the legal maneuverings, but for our purposes, it's only important that Zeke will play Sunday. And boy does the running back have the matchup to produce big numbers. Elliott has looked spectacular in recent games. Since Week 4, Elliott leads NFL in scrimmage YPG (161.0), scrimmage TDs (7) and rush TD (5). He's back to hitting the hole hard and plowing through runners on the second level. Sunday, he faces a Chiefs defense that has been a sieve since Eric Berry left the lineup in Week 1. K.C.'s defense has allowed 131.1 rushing yards per game and 5.99 yards per play. The Chiefs have given up chunk plays both on the ground and through the air, allowing 71 big plays this season, most in the NFL.
NFL Research stat of the week: Alex Smith has the most passing TD (16) without an INT in his team's first 8 games in the Super Bowl Era. Smith has 259 pass attempts this season without an INT -- dating back to 1991, Bernie Kosar has thrown the most passes without an INT to start a season (286 in 1991 -- finished season with 9 INT).
After hearing criticism all week about the lack of deep shots last game, I expect Derek Carr to toss more than a few bombs against a Miami's leaky secondary. If Josh McCown and Joe Flacco can burn the Dolphins deep, Carr should too. The Raiders' quarterback owns a 51.6 passer rating on throws of 21-plus air yards (28th in NFL) this season after putting up a 117.8 rating last season. Amari Cooper will be the key for Carr. The wideout went back into a shell last week. If the Raiders are to salvage the season, Cooper needs to have another big game under the Sunday night lights.
Jay Cutler returns, and the Dolphins move on without Jay Ajayi. It will be interesting to see how Adam Gase juggles a backfield of Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams. Ajayi accounted for 82.1 percent of the Dolphins carries this season, the highest rate in the NFL. With the bruising back gone, Miami could be a pass-centric attack with Drake and Williams out of the backfield. Cutler has struggled this season, but last week showed it's not all on him. Facing a Raiders defense that ranks dead last in passer rating allowed (108.2), Cutler has an advantage if his offensive line can block Khalil Mack for more than two seconds.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Raiders are the only team this season without an interception -- first team in NFL history with 0 INTs in the first eight games of a season. Jay Cutler has thrown five INTs in six starts this year.
Matthew Stafford moved the ball at will last week, but the Lions red zone struggles hit DEFCON 1. The Lions rank T-25th in red zone offense this season, scoring touchdowns on 45.0 percent of RZ drives. Since Week 3, Detroit has converted only 31.3 percent of their red zone drives into touchdowns (30th in NFL). While the lack of a run game exacerbates matters, so does the lack of a true red-zone receiving threat. Stafford has completed only 39.5 percent of this throws in the red zone this season (30th in NFL). The Packers rank 30th in touchdowns per red zone appearance this season, according to Football Outsiders.
Did the bye week help Mike McCarthy scheme up beneficial scenarios for Brett Hundley? The Packers' passer owns the NFL's lowest yards per attempt, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passer rating this season among players with 50-plus pass attempts. In his past two games combined, Hundley earned 244 total yards passing. The QB has too many weapons for such piddling numbers. The Lions defense did a good job slowing Le'Veon Bell last week, and if Aaron Jones is stymied Monday night, it will put the game in Hundley's hands. Can the 24-year-old quarterback earn his breakout performance in a pivotal divisional home game to keep his team's playoff hopes alive?