Everything you need to know as kickoff approaches...
Key game-time decisions
All players questionable unless noted
Cooper returned to practice on Friday on a limited basis. The WR will likely be a game-time decision. Patterson was also limited on Friday.
Detroit Lions: QB Matthew Stafford (right hand), RB Ameer Abdullah (neck), CB Jamal Agnew (knee), DE Ezekiel Ansah (ankle), T Emmett Cleary (ankle), G T.J. Lang (foot), P Sam Martin (right foot), T Corey Robinson (foot), C Travis Swanson (knee), DE Cornelius Washington (shoulder)
Stafford was limited all week. It would be a surprise if the QB sat. Abdullah was limited all week. Lang and Ansah returned to practice on Friday as limited participants. The Lions ruled out RT Rick Wagner (ankle).
Ramsey sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday but returned limited on Friday. Smith sat out Friday after being full-go earlier in the week. WR Allen Hurns (ankle) was again ruled out.
Funchess sat out practice Friday, but coach Ron Rivera said it was precautionary. Olsen expects to return to the lineup Sunday. Kalil was limited all week. The Panthers ruled out LB Shaq Thompson (foot).
Shepard was limited on Thursday and Friday but is expected to play. JPP, Darkwa and Apple were limited on Friday after missing earlier sessions.
Woods practiced on Friday for the first time on a limited basis. The WR had been targeting a Week 15 return, so his listing as questionable to return this Sunday is optimistic. Ogletree and Barwin were also limited on Friday after missing practices earlier this week.
Atkins sat out all week. Dennard and Rey were limited on Friday. The Bengals ruled out LB Vontaze Burfict (concussion), CB Adam Jones (groin), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), RB Joe Mixon (concussion), LB Nick Vigil (ankle), S Shawn Williams (hamstring).
Dallas Cowboys: WR Brice Butler (foot), T La'el Collins (back), DT Maliek Collins (foot), LB Justin Durant (concussion, illness), DE David Irving (concussion), CB Orlando Scandrick (back), T Tyron Smith (back)
Smith was limited on Thursday and Friday. Irving, Scandrick and Collins sat out all week. Butler was limited on Thursday and Friday. Linebacker Sean Lee was not designated and will play.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DE Ryan Russell (knee)
Chicago Bears: S DeAndre Houston-Carson (ankle)
Minnesota Vikings: C Pat Elflein (shoulder)
Forte sat out practice on Friday.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Tamba Hali (knee)
San Francisco 49ers: T Trent Brown (shoulder)
Brown was limited on Thursday and Friday.
Houston Texans: G Xavier Su'a-Filo (groin)
The guard was limited on Friday. On a positive note: Will Fuller was not designated on the injury report. The Texans ruled out RB Alfred Blue (concussion), WR Braxton Miller (concussion), T Julien Davenport (shoulder), and LB Jelani Jenkins (concussion).
Seattle Seahawks: DE Dion Jordan (neck)
Tennessee Titians: OUT: LB Derrick Morgan (knee)
Williams was full-go in practice on Friday. Liuget was limited.
Maclin and Mosley were both full participants on Friday, a positive sign for their availability on Sunday night.
Pittsburgh Steelers: S Mike Mitchell (ankle)
Mitchell was limited in practice on Friday. Antonio Brown was not listed on the injury report.
Colts at Bills -- 21 degrees, overcast, winds 14 mph
Lions at Bucs -- 53 degrees, clear, winds 10 mph
Raiders at Chiefs -- 44 degrees, clear, winds 11 mph
49ers at Texans (indoors) -- 49 degrees, clear
Cowboys at Giants - 39 degrees, partly cloudy, winds 15 mph
Packers at Browns -- 28 degrees, mostly cloudy, winds 18 mph
Bears at Bengals -- 30 degrees, partly cloudy, winds 10 mph
Vikings at Panthers -- 34 degrees, clear
Redskins at Chargers -- 74 degrees, partly cloudy
Jets at Broncos -- 57 degrees, clear
Titans at Cardinals (indoors) -- 73 degrees, clear
Seahawks at Jaguars -- 54 degrees, clear
Eagles at Rams -- 75 degrees, clear
Ravens at Steelers (SNF) -- 28 degrees, mostly cloudy, wins 10 mph
Patriots at Dolphins (MNF) -- 59 degrees, clear
What to Watch For
For all the praise Case Keenum has earned this season, not enough praise is being heaped on the backfield tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. Since Dalvin Cook suffered his torn ACL (Week 4), Murray and McKinnon have formed the NFL's second-best rushing duo entering Week 13, earning 922 rushing yards, behind only Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Murray put early season injury issues to rest and has powered through tacklers to keep Keenum in favorable down-and-distances. The tandem has its toughest test of the season against a powerful Panthers defensive front, including tackling maven Luke Kuechly. If Murray and McKinnon can pick up chunk gains on early downs, it will set up Keenum to burn Carolina's secondary with play-action as the game wears.
The ebb and flow of the Panthers' season rests solely on Cam Newton. Carolina is 8-1 when Newton has a passer rating of 55 or higher this season, and 0-3 when he has a rating below 55. The quarterback must summon the power of his Superman alter ego Sunday against a battering, smothering Vikings defense. In two previous games versus Newton, Mike Zimmer's defense earned 12 sacks and picked off the QB twice. There isn't a place on the field where the Panthers own a district advantage outside Newton's ability to pick up broken plays. Given Minnesota's menacing pass rush, I expect the Panthers to utilize Christian McCaffrey often in space. The Vikings, however, are giving up just 35.3 passing yards per game to running backs, per Football Outsiders, and have slowed the likes of Chris Thompson and Duke Johnson. Greg Olsen's return could be the best matchup for Newton on Sunday.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Vikings are allowing a third-down conversion rate of 27.2 percent this season (1st in NFL) -- lowest third-down conversion percentage allowed in a season by any team since the 1992 Cowboys (27.2) team that won Super Bowl XXVII. Cam Newton has the NFL's seventh-best QB conversion percentage on third down this season (41.5).
The average Bears drive: run, run, pass, punt. With John Fox still calling the shots, we shouldn't expect that to change. With the Bengals banged up on defense, including Vontaze Burfict out with a concussion, Jordan Howard has a solid matchup to at least extend a few drives with his legs. With Mitchell Trubisky showing signs of regressing in limited pass attempts in recent weeks, I don't expect the conservative coaching staff to finally open the playbook on the road (even though it needs to happen before the end of the season). As long as the game is close, expect Howard to receive the bulk of the touches against an injured Cincy squad coming off a short week.
Andy Dalton has collapsed this season when pressure closes in, particularly in second halves of games. The good news for the Red Rifle on Sunday is the Bears' pass rush has been rendered impotent by injury. Even behind a porous offensive line, Dalton should have plenty of time to find A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell downfield. With Joe Mixon (concussion) out, I expect a pass-heavy game plan from Bill Lazor, beginning with quick strikes, then hitting a flagging Bears secondary with deep shots as the game progresses. After Green caught zero passes in the second half of last week's loss, I'd expect the Bengals to target the Pro Bowl receiver heavily against a Chicago D rated No. 28 against No. 1 wideouts, per Football Outsiders.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Bears are 12-32 (.273 win percent) since John Fox became head coach in 2015 -- only Cleveland (4) and San Francisco (9) have fewer wins than Chicago since 2015. With one more loss this season, the Bears will have lost 10-plus games in four consecutive seasons, which would be the longest streak by the Bears since 1997-2000 (4 straight -- crossing the Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron eras).
The Colts' season is sliding toward its inevitable end, likely with the coaching staff being buried this winter. At least we can look forward to Frank Gore chugging along the rest of December. Now No. 5 on the NFL's all-time rushing list, the 34-year-old continues to defy amorphous age limitations. On a better offense, with a better offensive line, we'd likely be marveling at Gore's consistency each week. Despite his age, the veteran continues to break tackles, make quick cuts, find the correct holes and fall forward on each run. Sunday, he faces a Buffalo defense that ranks 29th in DVOA by Football Outsiders and has repeatedly been gashed up the gut. The matchup sets up a good week for Gore to begin pecking away at Curtis Martin's fourth place in the all-time standing.
With Tyrod Taylor (knee) a game-time decision, the Bills have the opportunity to go back to Nathan Peterman. Against a Colts defense that has made Blake Bortles look like a Pro Bowler twice this season, Peterman would have a chance to build confidence. A good performance against a bad defense might allow the coaching staff to wiggle back to their plan to give the rookie a shot down the stretch. Peterman struggles with decision making, but his ability to throw with anticipation would be paid off against Indy's limp secondary. Regardless of which quarterback plays, expect a heavy dose of LeSean McCoy against a sieve Colts defense front.
NFL Research stat of the week: Colts defensive rankings under Chuck Pagano:
Points per game allowed: 2017: 32nd; 2016: 22nd; 2015: 25th; 2014: 19th; 2013: 9th; 2012: 21st
Yards per game allowed: 2017: 29th; 2016: 30th; 2015: 26th; 2014: 11th; 2013: 20th; 2012: 26th
Running back Jamaal Williams powered the Packers to a win last week, earning his first career 100-yard rushing game (113 rush yards, 1 TD). The bruising runner has back-to-back games with 100-plus scrimmage yards, becoming the first Packers RB to do so since Eddie Lacy in 2015. Green Bay will again ride Williams against a Browns defense decimated by injuries up front. Williams runs like an angry moose, rarely going down upon first contact, and powering through fruitless arm tackles. With Brett Hundley continuing to struggle to stretch the field, Williams must keep the Pack in good down-and-distances Sunday to maintain Green Bay's chances at a playoff spot with Aaron Rodger's possible return down the road.
Apparently, Josh Gordon is rust-proof. The Browns' receiver had four receptions for 85 yards last week, second most for a Cleveland receiver all season. Gordon displayed his uber-athleticism, ability to fight for the ball at the catch point, acrobatic catch acumen, and speed in space. He looked like a spry gazelle last week against a very good secondary. Sunday, he faces a mediocre defense that has been burned vertically repeatedly this season, especially on third downs. DeShone Kizer displayed no hesitation trying to force-feed Gordon last game (11 targets). In his second tilt back, expect a similar workload for the massive receiver as the Browns try to get their first win in the post-Sashi Brown era (which would match the win total of the Sashi Brown era #SadFaceEmoji).
NFL Research stat of the week: In the last five seasons (since 2013), Green Bay has made the playoffs both times it had a .500-or-worse record heading into Week 14 (2013 and 2016).
Never has a 2-10 team been as enticing a watch as the Niners with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Last week, the quarterback looked every bit a franchise signal-caller he was promised while in New England. Jimmy G displayed sublime pocket movement, otherworldly accuracy, arm strength for days, and phenomenal pre-snap recognition. Like all franchise QBs, Garoppolo elevated the play of everyone around him, including a feeble offensive line. Sunday's matchup against a Houston defense prone to giving up chunk gains portends another big day for Garoppolo if he can avoid getting his torso ripped from the hips by Jadeveon Clowney.
Tom Savage had a career day in Week 13, tossing for 356 yards and completing 63.3 percent of 49 pass attempts with a touchdown and an interception. The quarterback gets another matchup to stack positives, facing a Niners secondary ranked 30th in pass DVOA by Football Outsiders. The possible return of Will Fuller will provide a needed complement to DeAndre Hopkins, but expect Savage to send Nuk his standard double-digit targets (he's averaged 12.4 targets the past five games). Lamar Miller also has a tremendous matchup in the passing game, against a 49ers defense that struggles to cover backs in space. If Savage can avoid the turnovers, Sunday's game in Houston has the chance to be a shootout.
The Raiders' Week 7 win over the Chiefs at home kept their season alive after a 2-4 start. Going 4-2 since, coupled with K.C.'s collapse, gives Jack Del Rio's team a shot at the postseason. A win in Kansas City would keep them on pace for a grand turnaround. Oakland is a flawed team, but, even if Amari Cooper can't suit up, Sunday sets up as a potentially big day for Derek Carr and the offense. Michael Crabtree's return, coupled with the team-imposed suspension of Chiefs corner Marcus Peters, gives Oakland a matchup advantage on the outside. Marshawn Lynch owns the biggest edge of the afternoon against a K.C. run D ranked 30th in DVOA. With Beast Mode picking up chunk gains, Carr should find ample windows down the field against a shorthanded defense.
The big plays returned last week for Alex Smith, but the Chiefs continue to lack consistent chain-moving offense. An offense can live off 70-yard bombs to Tyreek Hill on broken coverages for so long. Sunday at Arrowhead, however, Hill should continue to eat. The Raiders' secondary has been torched through the air, allowing a 108.2 passer rating and four games of three TDs and no INTs to opposing quarterbacks. It took an inept Paxton Lynch for Oakland to magically earn their only interception of the season. After watching Evan Engram feast last week against the Raiders, Travis Kelce must be champing at the bit. Between the favorable matchups for Hill and Kelce, Smith should be able to make enough splash plays and turn Sunday's game into another shootout.
NFL Research stat of the week: Since returning from his one-game suspension incurred during the last meeting with K.C., Marshawn Lynch has been a more productive runner:
First seven games: 10.3 carries per game, 38.0 rush YPG, 3.7 yards per carry, 2 rushing TDs.
Last 4 games: 17.0 carries per game, 73.0 rush YPG, 4.3 yards per carry, 4 rushing TDs.
Matthew Stafford's bruised right hand casts a pall off over the Lions' deteriorating playoff hopes. The Lions quarterback is questionable. He'll likely play, but with possible limitations. Entering Week 14, Stafford owns the highest passer rating of his career (63.9). His accuracy and ability to power the ball into tight windows could be affected by the injury Sunday in Tampa. Last year, Stafford played with a bum hand down the stretch that limited his ability to get power behind throws. Reports out of Detroit practices are that Stafford looks close to normal on all his throws, which, if true, would set him up for a potentially big day. Against a Bucs pass defense that covers slot men about as well as a dish towel covers a grizzly bear, Sunday forecasts as a Golden Tate-heavy day for the Lions. Big play rookie Kenny Golladay also has a great matchup on the outside to make plays downfield, if Stafford's hand allows.
Jameis Winston continues to make at least one boneheaded decision a week when under pressure. Luckily for the Tampa quarterback, he faces a toothless Lions pass rush. Winston should find plenty of time to target Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard against a Lions defense that ranks 31st in DVOA against tight ends. Winston is at his best pushing the ball down the seam to his tight ends and should have plenty opportunities to do so at home Sunday. The matchup on the outside to watch is Mike Evans versus Darius Slay. The Lions DB is enjoying an under-the-radar season as a shadow corner. According to Football Outsiders, Detroit ranks No. 4 in DVOA against opposing No. 1 receivers. The high rank is on Slay. The battle at the catch point between an athletic Evans and a finger-wagging Slay could be epic.
NFL Research stat of the week: Buccaneers D in 2017:
Total YPG: 385.6 (31st in NFL); Yards per play allowed: 6.1 (32nd); Pass YPG: 267.3 (31st); 3rd down percent: 48.5 (32nd); Sacks: 17 (32nd).
Dak Prescott has averaged just 150.5 pass YPG over his last four tilts. Is he in for a bounce-back against a banged-up Giants defense that struggles to tackle in space? Dak's propensity to force-feed Dez Bryant should pay off this week. Bryant gets the luxury of not facing Janoris Jenkins (IR) this time around and should beat up the less-physical corners tasked with slowing him down. The Cowboys will still ride Alfred Morris heavily, especially if they get a lead, but Sunday's matchup could be an opportunity for Prescott to get back on track as the Cowboys attempt to keep their playoff hopes alive.
There is only one thing I'm certain will happen Sunday: Eli Manning will receive the loudest cheer of the day from the MetLife crowd when he takes the field. How the hometown fans react once the game begins to unfold remains to be seen. The biggest problem for Manning will be avoiding decapitation by Demarcus Lawrence -- who leads the NFL with 13.5 sacks this season. The Cowboys made changes to the secondary last week, going young, to great effect. Even with those limited sample-size upgrades, Manning should still have mismatches with tight end Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard out of the slot. Manning wasn't lighting the world on fire before he was unceremoniously benched for Geno Smith. Given the lack of surrounding talent, we shouldn't expect him to come out blazing in his return. Football is funny, however. What a fitting plotline this fools play would get if Manning ripped apart the Cowboys to dash his rival's playoff hopes.
NFL Research stat of the week: Statistically speaking, the Cowboys RB duo of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith (since Week 10) has been slightly more productive than Elliott was in the first eight games of the season: Elliott: 23.9 carries per game, 97.9 rushing YPG, 4.1 yards per carry
Morris/Smith Since Week 10: 23.6 carries per game, 100.0 rushing YPG, 4.3 yards per carry
The Titans might enter the game wanting to run the ball, but going to the air has been the proven method in besting a stout Cardinals defense. Marcus Mariota's season has been maddeningly up-and-down, but he has a matchup to earn big gains against Arizona's second and third cornerbacks. Assuming Patrick Peterson shadows Rishard Matthews (returning from injury), rookie Corey Davis and Eric Decker own favorable matchups. I'm interested to see if Davis can overcome the struggles of the past month and win against lesser CBs. The ever-forgotten Delanie Walker also has a positive matchup to continue his hot streak. Walker continues to be one of the most underrated, consistent tight ends in the NFL, and could find the end zone again Sunday against a Cards D that has allowed six TDs to tight ends this season.
With Adrian Peterson out again, Blaine Gabbert will be forced to carry the load. The quarterback gets a beautiful matchup against a Titans defense that just allowed Tom Savage to have a career day. (Any defense that lets Savage and Gabbert to go off in back-to-back weeks should be forced run a mile in high heels.) Larry Fitzgerald profiles for a big day as Gabbert's security blanket, even with Logan Ryan (cleared concussion protocol) likely following him to the slot. Gabbert's penchant for targeting tight ends, especially Ricky Seals-Jones on third down, should be beneficial against a Tennessee defense comfortable funneling targets to the middle (allowed 106 passes to TEs this season, most in the NFL).
NFL Research stat of the week: With 26 receiving yards on Sunday, Larry Fitzgerald (15,267) will pass Randy Moss (15,292) for 3rd place on the NFL's all-time receiving list.
We were all wrong about the Jets' receivers. Unless you were related to someone on the team, don't pretend you thought this gaggle of pass-catchers would be fun to watch, especially after Quincy Enunwa went down with injury. The reality is that John Morton's offense has been highly entertaining with Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse picking up chunk gains with ease. Kearse (157 yards) and Anderson (107 yards) became the first Jets teammates to each have 100-plus receiving yards in consecutive games (Weeks 12-13) since Don Maynard and George Sauer in 1967 (Weeks 16-17). The duo has a much stiffer test this week. While the Broncos defense has begun to show signs of cracking, Denver still boasts sticky cover men on the outside, bolstered by Aqib Talib's return from suspension. Anderson's matchup with Talib is the one to watch. Talib is a physical corner, but Anderson has the speed to burn him deep if the young wideout can get off the line of scrimmage free.
On paper, the Broncos would have a good matchup against a Jets pass defense that has given up big plays this season -- see Alex Smith last week. Does anyone in Denver have faith Trevor Siemian can connect on those tosses? The Denver offense is broken and painful to watch. Even with Emmanuel Sanders (questionable) and Demaryius Thomas owning plus matchups on the outside, it doesn't feel like Siemian can take advantage. Against the Jets 27th ranked pass DVOA defense, the Broncos best bet seems like easy slants and receiver screens hoping Sanders or Thomas can break free. This is depressing.
NFL Research stat of the week: Josh McCown has 18 TD, 8 INT, and a 96.7 passer rating this season -- career highs in comp. percentage (67.8), passing touchdowns (18), and rushing touchdowns (5).
Friends, pray for Kirk Cousins. Pray he doesn't get squashed like a tin can in a trash compactor by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on Sunday in California. The man has a child to care for! If you don't believe Cousins has performed spectacularly given his inconsistent weapons and disintegrating blocking, you're either box-score-watching or sticking to a preconceived belief and choosing to budge to reality. Cousins' biggest problem Sunday will be a fire-breathing pass rush. The Redskins offensive line has allowed 35 sacks and pressure on 27.9 percent of passes this season. Since Week 7, the Redskins OL has allowed the second-most sacks (27) in the NFL and Cousins has been taken down four-plus times in five of their last seven games. The Chargers have 35 sacks on the season (fourth most in the NFL) and get pressure on 27.4 percent of dropbacks. These numbers foretell doom for Cousins. He must get the ball out to Jamison Crowder and Vernon Davis quick Sunday.
During their three-game win streak, the Chargers' offense ranks first in the NFL in points per game (33.7), total yards (457.7), passing yards (350.7), third down percent (55.8) and tied for first with zero giveaways. The Chargers smartly have morphed into a pass-first offense, allowing Philip Rivers to play point guard, and it's made all the difference. The NFL's hottest receiver, Keenan Allen has been a matchup nightmare for defenses all over the field. Expect him to roam the slot plenty Sunday to get the most beneficial matchup. L.A. also owns speed on the outside that's proven difficult for the Redskins to match. Hunter Henry boasts a juicy matchup versus a Washington D that has allowed 791 yards to tight ends this season (third-most in the NFL). Once again, Rivers has matchups across the board for a massive day.
NFL Research stat of the week: Keenan Allen is the first player in NFL history with 10-plus receptions, 100-plus receiving yards and 1-plus rec TD in three consecutive games. Allen leads all players in third-down targets (50), receptions (31), receiving yards (464) and receptions for first downs (26) this season -- 99 more yards on third down than next closest WR (Adam Thielen, 365 yards).
The Seattle Wilsons face their stiffest defensive test of the season. Russell Wilson is the Seahawks' offense this year, earning 82.2 percent of the team's yards, highest by any player in Super Bowl era. Sunday however, he faces the most physical, fast secondary in the NFL. With Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye bumping and buzzing his receivers down the field, will Wilson be able to find enough lanes to keep drives alive? Only three wide receivers all season have topped 60 yards versus the Jaguars' secondary. While Mike Davis provides some oomph in the run game against an up-and-down Jacksonville rush D, it likely won't be consistent enough Sunday. Wilson has worked magic with his legs against good defenses -- including last week against Philadelphia -- but will he be able to get away from Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell and the rest of Sacksonville?
Blake Bortles against what's left of the Legion of Boom is the key. As much as the Jags want to run the ball, they'll have a tough time Sunday. Leonard Fournette is averaging 56.5 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry in his last four tilts. While the back end of Seattle's D is banged up, the front seven hasn't forgotten how to stuff the run. The Seahawks are allowing just 71.2 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry in the last five matchups. In the Jags' eight wins, Bortles has 11 TD passes to just three INTs and a 93.7 passer rating. Somewhat astonishingly, Bortles hasn't turned the ball over in the red zone. The quarterback has yet to have an implosion game in a big spot this season. Will Sunday be the one? Or will Bortles stay out of the way enough for the Jags to pull off an important home win?
Who's up for some points? The Eagles and Rams are tied for the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense this season (30.1 PPG). This is the first time since the 1970 merger in which two teams tied with the NFL's top scoring offense play each other.
Doug Pederson stuck with the running game too long last week, and it cost his team. This is the week to ride the ground-heavy attack. Wade Phillips' defense is most susceptible to the ground attack. Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement have a plus matchup against Football Outsiders' No. 21-ranked run D that could be without Alec Ogletree (questionable). Getting the ground game going will open the play-action for Carson Wentz. The MVP candidate is coming off a game in which he struggled but still completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 348 yards. Wentz's most favorable matchup in the passing game Sunday will be Nelson Agholor against a D that has given up chunk gains to slot receivers. After a tough loss, how Wentz bounces back against a good team will speak to his character, mettle and the Eagles' chances to hoist a Super Bowl trophy.
Jared Goff has feasted off play-action, creating gaping holes to throw into. Credit Sean McVay for scheming his receivers wide open and getting Goff into the proper play call. For those play-action passes to work, however, first the Rams must be able to run the ball. Against previous opponents, that's been little trouble. Todd Gurley has nine games this season with 100-plus scrimmage yards (most in NFL). Gurley, however, faces an Eagles front that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season and gives up just 68.1 rush YPG. Gurley has been able to plow his way through defenders and make tacklers miss on the edge consistently this season. If he's stymied Sunday, and the Eagles' pass rushers can pin their ears back on long down-and-distances, Goff must display his improved mettle in the pocket. Whichever young quarterback performs best when the pocket breaks down will give his team the upper edge Sunday in a game with massive playoff implications.
NFL Research stat of the week: Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are on pace to become the 4th and 5th QBs in NFL history to have 4,000-plus passing yards and a 95-plus passer rating in their second NFL season.
Joe Flacco looked like a real quarterback last week. Hip hip hooray. The maligned signal-caller looked like Joe of old, heaving several deep shots, for a season-high 269 passing yards. Flacco benefited from facing a limp pass rush last week. He won't have such a luxury Sunday in Pittsburgh against a defense ranking second in the NFL with 40 sacks on the season. With Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffering a devastating, sad spinal injury last week, Pittsburgh is without its sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. Will Shazier's absence open lanes for angry bulldozer Alex Collins up the gut and to the edge? If Collins is gaining chunks, it could slow down the pass rush on Flacco and allow for some deep shots against a Steelers defense that is susceptible to the bomb.
The matchup of the night is the Steelers' yard-churning offense (seventh in yards) against the Ravens' suffocating defense (seventh in yards allowed). Antonio Brown has been held under 100 receiving yards in five straight games against the Ravens (100-plus rec yards in two of 14 regular season meetings versus Baltimore). Brown logged just 34 receiving yards in a Week 4 meeting (season low) to go along with a Gatorade jug frustration toss. The difference this week could be the absence of Ravens corner Jimmy Smith, who blew his Achilles last week. Rookie Marlon Humphrey allowed five catches for 116 yards replacing Smith last game, per Pro Football Focus. Expect Ben Roethlisberger to test the rookie corner often Sunday, especially when he lines up across from Brown.
Rob Gronkowski's suspension wipes out a huge mismatch advantage for Tom Brady. It shouldn't slow down the NFL's greatest quarterback. The Patriots are 12-0 in games without Gronkowski since 2016, earning 29.6 PPG and 295.8 passing YPG in those tilts. Brady still boasts plenty of weapons to exploit a simple Dolphins defense. Chris Hogan's likely return gives Brady another red-zone target to help make up for Gronk's absence. And Miami has no answer for Brandin Cooks' speed on the outside. Dion Lewis should play another big role against a leaky Dolphins run defense. The shifty running back rushed for 112 yards on 15 totes versus Miami just two weeks ago.
Kenyan Drake takes over as the Dolphins' offensive motor. The running back earned a career-high 26 touches for 141 total yards last week, displaying speed, shiftiness in space, and enough tackle-breaking ability to earn tough yards. While New England's defense has stiffened, especially in the red zone (11.9 PPG allowed since Week 5), it is most susceptible to the ground attack, ranking 32nd in run DVOA. If the Dolphins are to keep the game tight at home, Drake should carry the load early in an effort to keep Brady on the sideline.
NFL Research stat of the week: Last week Tom Brady did not have a TD pass. Over the past two seasons, Brady has had four games with 0 passing TDs. In the next game following a 0-TD performance, Brady is 3-0 with 10 pass TD and 0 INT.