Everything you need to know as kickoff approaches...
Key game-time decisions
All players questionable unless noted
It would be a stunner if Big Ben sits. UPDATE: Roethlisberger will indeed be a game-time decision, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.
Steve Smith will be a game-time decision, but his full participation on Thursday and Friday is a good sign.
Cobb was limited all week. Will the Packers give the receiver another week to rest? UPDATE: Cobb is not expected to play, per Rapoport.
Kuechly missed the last two days, but Ron Rivera sounded confident the linebacker would start Sunday.
Johnson was limited all week after missing the past two games.
Dez was full-go on Thursday and Friday and will play.
Slay was limited all week. Riddick was also limited but would be a surprise inactive. Reiff's availability sounds shaky.
McKinnon expects to play. UPDATE: McKinnon is expected to play, per Rapoport.
All three were full-go Friday.
Hyde was limited all week and will be a game-time decision. DuJuan Harris will get more carries if Hyde sits again. UPDATE: Hyde is not expected to play, per Rapoport.
Parker was a full participant all week. He should play unhindered.
Rainey was limited all week.
Marshall was limited all week.
Cooper was limited all week. It would be a major surprise if the stud wideout missed Sunday night. UPDATE: Cooper is expected to play, per Rapoport.
*It's looking mostly dry for our 11 outdoor games this week. We will update Sunday prognostications for all non-dome contests as we drift closer to game time. *
Steelers at Ravens -- 61 degrees
Cowboys at Browns -- 53 degrees
Jaguars at Chiefs -- 63 degrees
Jets at Dolphins -- 78 degrees -- chance of rain (25 percent)
Eagles at Giants -- 56 degrees
Panthers at Rams -- 70 degrees
Saints at 49ers -- 72 degrees
Colts at Packers -- 63 degrees
Titans at Chargers -- 70 degrees
Broncos at Raiders -- 63 degrees
Bills at Seahawks (MNF) -- 60 degrees -- chance of rain (30 percent)
What to Watch For
Ben Roethlisberger got his knee cut open two weeks ago, yet it would be a surprise at this point if the Steelers starter wasn't on the field. The bigger question will be how he'll look in his first game back. Big Ben isn't a scrambler, but will he be able to step into throws without affecting accuracy or downfield potency? The Ravens defense allows just 80.9 rushing yards per game, but haven't faced a force like Le'Veon Bell on the ground. With Big Ben not 100 percent, it will be the Lev Bell Show once again in this AFC North rivalry.
The Ravens talk all week about running the ball, then show up and throw it 40 times. Baltimore averages 44.1 pass attempts/game (most in NFL), but ranks 30th in yards per pass attempt (5.9). That script is unlikely to change Sunday, despite the advantage Terrance West has on paper. The return of Cameron Heyward to the Steelers D should not go understated. Pittsburgh's front was a mess without the run stuffer and pocket pusher. Getting Heyward back on the field should plug gaping holes that were available the past two weeks, forcing Joe Flacco to air the ball out. Similarly important is the possibility of Steve Smith Sr. (ankle; questionable) coming back. Flacco's pass game has lacked a go-to target with Smith out. If the possession receiver returns, it slots every other aspect of Baltimore's air attack back into place.
Say what? Stat of the week: The Steelers have eight sacks this season (last in NFL) and 0 sacks in each of the last two games. Pittsburgh has not had three straight games without a sack since 2004.
Ezekiel Elliott returns to Ohio. You can bet there will be plenty of Ohio State fans in Browns Country rooting for the Cowboys running back Sunday. Dallas' rushing attack versus the Browns' run defense is the biggest mismatch of the weekend. The Cowboys are the only team in the NFL with 100-plus rushing yards in every game this season. Zeke will keep pace to break Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record (1,808) with a monster day against a rush D giving up 148.3 yards per game.
The Browns will get Corey Coleman back this week, providing a dangerous one-two combination with Terrelle Pryor. The duo faces a Dallas defense that will be without corner Morris Claiborne and safety Barry Church. The Browns offense lacks consistency, but will boast an advantage on the outside against a banged-up Cowboys secondary that doesn't get a lot of aid from the pass rush. Cody Kessler returns as the starter. The rookie hasn't displayed a deep ball, but has helped Cleveland average 384 yards of offense in games he started and finished. It's also his first game with Coleman in the lineup. Turning the game into a shootout is the only way for Hue Jackson's undermanned squad to pull the upset.
Nathaniel Hackett takes over as offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars in a tough matchup against a Chiefs defense that leads the NFL in turnovers forced. With Blake Bortles struggling this season, expect Hackett to attempt to lean on the running game to take some pressure off the quarterback. Jacksonville is averaging 72.6 rushing yards per game this season, which would be the fewest in franchise history. Bortles' problems won't be fixed in one week. Getting a run game to be semi-productive would be a step towards helping the franchise quarterback through the rough patch.
Was Nick Foles' stellar play in relief last week an awakening or an aberration? If Foles plays lights out against a good-but-not-great Jags defense, we should hail Andy Reid as the Master Whisperer of all QB Whisperers. Foles' presence in the lineup should bring in more deep targets. The replacement QB completed three of his four throws of 21-plus air yards last week. Alex Smith has five completions of such length all year. The Jeremy Maclin (questionable) matchup with trash-talking rookie Jalen Ramsey will be fascinating. With an injured backfield (Spencer Ware ruled out) and Smith not playing, look for Reid to get jitterbug Tyreek Hill involved in the game plan HEAVILY.
Say what? Stat of the week:
Blake Bortles through 8 Weeks:
2015: 2-5 record, 55.7 completion percentage, 258.9 pass YPG, 15-8 TD-INT, 82.5 passer rating.
2016: 2-5 record, 60.0 completion percentage, 272.0 pass YPG, 12-9 TD-INT, 80.3 passer rating.
One team will exit Week 9 on a three-game win streak feeling like a playoff berth is on the horizon. The other team will be back to the drawing board after another division loss drops them further into the abyss.
Jay Ajayi's two-game 200-plus-yard streak is remarkable for a player who was benched to open the season. Most teams don't even try to run on the Jets, which boasts the No. 1 ranked rush D. Will Adam Gase stick with what has been working or try to get Ryan Tannehill going against a limp Jets pass D, ranked 32nd? The matchup says pass, but it would be dangerous for Gase to scrap a rejuvenated run attack completely.
The Jets have also rediscovered their ground game the past two weeks. Matt Forte has 182 rushing yards and three rushing TDs in the last two games. Keeping Forte involved takes pressure off the streaky Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins own the 30th-ranked run defense in the NFL, despite Ndamukong Suh having a monster season (somehow an under-the-radar storyline). Expect the Jets to mitigate any Fitzpatrick road disaster with a heavy dose of Forte and Bilal Powell.
Norv Turner's resignation provided the most shocking news of the week. It will be interesting to see what, if any, changes Pat Shurmur can make on the fly. Coordinators calling plays from someone else's playbook don't always cook with grease out of the gate. Sam Bradford gets a great matchup this week against a pathetic Lions defense allowing a 113.7 passer rating and 73.6 percent of passes to be completed. Darius Slay's potential return (questionable) is positive for Detroit, but can the Lions take advantage of a terrible Vikings offensive line? Ziggy Ansah hasn't been himself due to injury, and Kerry Hyder provides the only consistent pass rush -- the suspension of Armonty Bryant this week hurts Detroit. It's also worth mentioning the Vikings offensive line has played better at home this season.
Matthew Stafford has been fantastic this season, but has yet to dash the tendency to struggle on the road (see: Chicago, Houston). If the Lions have a chance of pulling the road upset, Stafford will need to be sublime against the din of Minnesota's still-shiny new stadium. With Xavier Rhodes locking down Marvin Jones, Golden Tate (six receptions in three straight games) and Eric Ebron must have big days. While this week has focused on the Vikings offense, expect a pissed-off Mike Zimmer defense to show up Sunday after giving up 20 points to Jay Cutler. A-Gap blitzes for days.
Say what? Stat of the week: The Vikings allowed 27 QB hits in their first five games combined (T-19th most in NFL); they've allowed 22 QB hits in their last two games combined (most in NFL).
Much has been made about Carson Wentz not throwing a pass of 15-plus air yards the past two weeks. Lost in that discussion was the Eagles should have gone 2-0 in those games. The rookie quarterback has done a stellar job running the offense called by Doug Pederson. The parts around Wentz are more to blame for the waning offense. The Eagles' receiving corps is the worst in the league -- to whom is Wentz supposed to throw deep? -- and the running game has come up flat outside of Darren Sproles. The rest of the Eagles offense needs to show up in New Jersey this week if Philly is going to stay afloat in the NFC East.
It's the start of the second half of the season, which means Odell Beckham Jr. Watch officially begins. Beckham averages 124.7 receiving yards with 15 TDs and 12 100-yard games in Weeks 9-17 for his career (77.2 YPG in Weeks 1-8). The Eagles defense has struggled against No. 1 receivers this season, allowing Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown and Alshon Jeffery to compile 21 catches for 349 yards collectively.
Say what? Stat of the week: The Giants have rushed for 195 yards since Week 4 -- 27 players have rushed for 195-plus yards since Week 4.
The hits Cam Newton takes overshadowed how huge the return of Jonathan Stewart has been for the Panthers offense. Since his return in Week 6, the Panthers offense has run more smoothly, fakes have been more effective opening up Newton's throwing lanes, and the read option is again a viable play. The Rams allow just 3.9 yards per rush (eighth-best in NFL). With Stewart on the field, L.A. will be forced to respect the play fakes, opening up Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen down the field against a suspect secondary.
Todd Gurley averages a pathetic 3.0 yards per rush this season thanks in part to a mediocre offense line and a passing game that wouldn't scare an FCS defense. The Panthers boast a defense that allows 3.3 yards per carry (tops in NFL) and held David Johnson to 24 yards rushing last week. Good luck running against that brick wall, Todd. Instead expect the Rams' brain trust to put the ball in Case Keenum's hands and try to pick apart a young Panthers secondary. When that fails to work, Jeff Fisher will come up with another excuse for why Jared Goff can't see the field.
Tim Hightower romped for 102 yards on 26 totes last week after Mark Ingram got benched. Ingram earned one 100-plus rushing game in his last 23. While they are likely to split touches, both running backs are in for a good day versus a pathetic San Francisco 49ers run D, giving up 185.1 yards on the ground (185!!!). The 49ers have allowed a 100-plus yard rusher in six consecutive games (most in franchise history). Sean Payton seems to have realized utilizing his rushing attack can keep his morbid defense off the field longer. After last week's benching proved Payton's point to Ingram, expect the starter to have a big bounce-back day.
The 49ers offense facing the Saints defense is like a feather falling on a sheet of toilet paper. Will the feather break the thin tissue? Will the toilet paper hold up to the weight of one simple feather traveling at an undetermined speed? Who knows? The Saints give up 397.4 total yards per game. Of course, the 49ers can't move the ball (290 yards per game), especially through the air -- fewer than 200 passing yards in five straight games. Whether or not Carlos Hyde (questionable) returns, expect DuJuan Harris to get more carries Sunday. Chip Kelly's offense can't do diddly this season, but at least Harris showed some burst before the bye.
Say what? Stat of the week:Michael Thomas leads New Orleans in targets (49), receptions (36) and rec yards (442) since Week 2 -- TD reception in three of last five games.
T.Y. Hilton (hamstring) will play this week in a good matchup for Colts receivers against an injured Packers secondary. The Colts are 3-0 when Hilton has 100-plus receiving yards this season and 0-5 when Hilton has fewer than 100 receiving yards. Donte Moncrief returned last week and saw nine targets. The 6-foot-2 receiver should once again see a bevy of passes his way. Of course, all these passing stats assume someone will block for Andrew Luck long enough for him to complete a throw. Even when Clay Matthews has been out, the Packers have generated a solid pass rush against better offensive lines.
Aaron Rodgers has come alive the past two weeks thanks to the infusion of young receivers -- 111.7 passer rating in Weeks 7-8 (3rd in NFL). Part of that incorporation was due to injury, but the increased usage of Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, Ty Montgomery, Trevor Davis, etc. provided speed to an otherwise slow-footed group. Against a decidedly poor Colts defense that fails to rush the passer and struggles in coverage, Rodgers should put up big numbers again. Growing those young receivers over the middle stages of the season will set up the Packers offense to roll into the postseason.
Say what? Stat of the week: The Colts have 2 INTs this season (fewest in NFL). They are on pace for 4 INT the year, which would tie the lowest total in a single season by any team since 1970 -- 2008 Lions: 4 INTs (DET finished 0-16 that season).
Credit the Titans' mashing offensive line for providing ample opportunities for DeMarco Murray. The veteran back entered the week second in rushing with 756 yards. Murray is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, but on Sunday faces the best run defense since he gained just 42 yards against Minnesota in Week 1. The Chargers defense has improved vastly since Joey Bosa entered the lineup. Brandon Mebane eats up blockers on the inside, letting linebackers cleaning up rushers on the second level. Injuries to Denzel Perryman (doubtful) and Jatavis Brown (out), however, hurt the middle of the Chargers defense. Tennessee's line has a chance to cement itself among the top shelf units if it clears holes for Murray and Derrick Henry on Sunday in San Diego.
Philip Rivers continues to put up numbers (285.6 passing YPG, 7.8 yards/attempt) despite targets crumbling around him. The Chargers head into Sunday banged up, with receivers Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams questionable and tight end Hunter Henry ruled out. Pretty soon Rivers will be left throwing to Derek Watt and Griff Whalen. Given how he's plugged in receivers and not skipped a beat, Rivers would probably throw for 312 yards with Watt and Whalen his only targets. Facing a good Titans defensive front that stymies the run and rushes the passer well, expect Rivers to get the ball out quickly to whatever receivers are left.
Say what? Stat of the week: The Titans D has 22 sacks this season (T-3rd most in NFL) with 16 sacks over the last four weeks (most in NFL).
Trevor Siemian must break out of his shell Sunday night against the Raiders defense. Jack Del Rio's unit has played better of late, but still gives up big plays. Siemian has averaged 5.9 yards per attempt in his last three games and is averaging only 212.4 passing YPG this season (29th in NFL). Siemian doesn't throw a bad deep ball but hasn't hit it often with Demaryius Thomas (four straight games with fewer than 80 receiving yards) and Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos' receiving duo needs to have a big game to keep up with their counterparts wearing black.
The fireworks could all be on display when the Raiders have the ball. Derek Carr has regularly been one of the most entertaining quarterbacks to watch this season. The Raiders offensive line has allowed the quarterback to maneuver relatively unimpeded. Carr has taken 2.1 hits per game this season, fewest in the NFL for qualifying QBs. On Sunday, those blockers get their biggest test against Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray, and Derek Wolfe. Aqib Talib (back) missing the matchup is a big blow for Denver and should open up more opportunities for Michael Crabtree -- who was likely to get the Talib treatment.
LeSean McCoy is on pace to return, which is a huge boost for the Bills' chances in Seattle. McCoy has been a game-changer when on the field and the only Bills skill player that scares opponents -- no, I don't expect much, if anything, from Percy Harvin in this #RevengeGame. In the Bills' four wins, Shady averages 117.5. He hasn't gained more than 59 yards in any of the losses (injured in two). The Seahawks defense allows just 3.4 yards per rush, but the absence of Michael Bennett looms large again -- Seattle allowed Tim Hightower to run for 102 yards last week.
Russell Wilson's lack of mobility exacerbates an offensive line that struggles in pass protection. Wilson is on pace for career lows in yards per attempt (7.5), passer rating (91.5), TD passes (11), rushing yards (101) and rushing TDs (0). Given Pete Carroll's talk this week, expect the Seahawks to get back to their ground-and-pound roots. Christine Michael will lead the way, but change-of-pace back C.J. Prosise should see an increase in snaps. The Bills are a team that can be run on, giving up 118.4 yards per game on the ground.
Say what? Stat of the week: Wilson has four games this season with 0 pass TDs and 0 rush TDs (out of seven played). He had six games with 0 pass TDs and 0 rush TDs in his first four seasons (64 games).