To preview this week’s games Bill Annechino and Jim Bearor teamed up to give their takes on the biggest stories in the league.
Bengals @ Patriots (1:00 EST)
Bill Annechino: Remember last week, when everyone pretty much knew that Brady would come back and commence setting the NFL on fire, except no one really knew if that would be the case? Well, 1 game down and 1 AFC Offensive Player of the Week award for the greatest quarterback to ever play football. What was most impressive to me about his game was the immediate chemistry he showed with Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett, two players who Brady had never played meaningful football with. Going into this game, the most compelling storyline to me is going to be how Brady attacks a diminished Bengals defense. The Patriots appear to be playing a higher level of football of any team besides Minnesota (which is debatable because the Patriots ceiling on offense is so high). Watching them the rest of the season is going to be like watching a Gregg Popovich Spurs team: moving parts working in perfect unison and no one sure where the ball is going next. Meanwhile, the Bengals’ season is on life support, but if they have any shot of making a run, they are going to need to at least play competitively against the best team in the AFC.
Jim Bearor: I really hope we get to see that well-oiled machine running on all cylinders, because the offense I’m picturing – the one we saw a snippet of last week – is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was nice to see more Gronk action, and seeing him and Bennett get involved at the same time is a glimpse of everything Patriots fans are hoping for this year. For the sake of entertainment, I hope we do see some of that ’07 team that had no issue blowing teams out, but I feel like they’ll be running more of a Milton Berle offense, only pulling out what it takes to come out on top. As you mentioned, the Bengals are already in a tough spot as far as playoff hopes go, and a loss here puts them at 2-4, but this isn’t exactly a do or die scenario for them quite yet. Their schedule from here on out is very manageable, with two games against the Browns and two against Baltimore, a surprising 3-2 team that I’m not sold on. I expect a big Pats win at home, and all it would take for me to maintain some level of faith in Cincinnati is a competitive showing, like you said. The biggest message the Bengals could send would be moving the ball on against the Pats defense in Foxborough. Forget their record, if they can find rhythm on offense and still fall to 2-4, I’m not bailing on them yet.
Bill: I think we agree that if they get blown out and lack cohesion on offense, it’s probably time to write them off, yes?
Jim: Yeah, that would be fair. I’m also fine with just moving them to the purgatory that I have the Chiefs and Bills in currently. The teams they’ll be jostling with: the Texans, Titans maybe, Ravens, Chiefs, Bills, Broncos, most of them don’t inspire much confidence in me either. We’ll see. If they look like shit, it’s certainly not a good thing, but there’s so much mediocre and inconsistent play around the league, I’m a little hesitant to write anyone off in this AFC Wild Card race.
49ers @ Bills (1:00 EST)
Jim: Colin Kaepernick is once again the starting quarterback for the 49ers, and San Fran is a 9 point underdog on the road against a streaking Bills team. Cross-country, quarterback change, red-hot Buffalo team, I kinda get it. But I kinda don’t. What we’ve seen from Tyrod Taylor so far this season has been underwhelming, and although the offense has still managed to be fairly productive, I’m not quite ready to trust them. My gut is still telling me that Buffalo is going to win, but it’s also telling me that this offense in its current form isn’t going to get the job done. I love Shady McCoy, the offensive line play, and the whole “not turning the ball over” thing, but I need to see a signature game from this offense sans Sammy Watkins. Expectations for Kaep and this Niners team are about as low as they can get for me, but I’m definitely still intrigued by what Kelly-Kaepernick might look like.
Bill: I’m with you on that. To me, the most impressive coaching job of this season has been Chip Kelly getting points and yards out of Blaine Gabbert, who is objectively awful. Fun fact about LeSean McCoy is that he’s averaging 110 yards per game over this 3 game winning streak. This is looking a lot more like a Rex Ryan team that can be successful since they are also limiting opposing teams in points on the winning streak. It sounds crazy to say this, but the absence of Sammy Watkins has forced them to reinvent themselves on the fly, and they may have found a formula that works.
Jim: No, that makes sense. Watkins being used as a crutch was never going to be a long term answer for this team. Maybe this time apart will make their bond stronger or whatever. Luke Skywalker wore a blindfold and Daniel-san was all defense for the longest time. Reinvention is fun and usually necessary, and that’s how I see it here.
Bill: Who would win a fight between Rob and Rex Ryan?
Jim: Rob. Rex might still be adjusting to the lap band removal, and Rob looks like a guy who throws his weight around and fights unpredictably. For some reason, I don’t think it’s close.
Bill: Interesting. I found out in real life, Rob and Rex did get in a fight in college. Apparently, Rex broke Rob’s nose. Rex is also technically older so that tips it for Rex to me. Moving on?
Eagles @ Redskins (1:00 EST)
Bill: Alright, so this game to me is going to be the first real test for Carson Wentz. I get that the Steelers game was probably more hyped, but this is the first chance for us to see how Wentz responds to adversity. He not only took his first loss last week, he also threw his first interception. Also, don’t look now, but Washington is on a little 3 game winning streak of their own. If they win this game, they’ll have the same record as Philadelphia, but will be ahead in the standings because of the tie-breaker. Washington has possibly the deepest receiving group in the league, although Jordan Reed is a huge question mark to play after suffering his 5th concussion. I gotta think all eyes are going to be on Wentz and how he rebounds, but we also may have been a little quick to write off Kirk Cousins after their slow start. Do you like that?
Jim: Yeah I like that. My opinion on Cousins hasn’t changed from this offseason. He’s not the demi-god we saw in 2015, but I think he’s pretty good and as you mentioned, that group of receivers is very good, even if Reed can’t go. I also like how often they go to the pass when it comes to this matchup. Schwartz’s defense is going to create havoc up front anyway, and the fact that Washington is a team that embraces rolling the dice means they’re not going to try to do something they can’t in the run game. As far as Wentz goes, I agree this is a huge test. Philly lost Lane Johnson this weekend, which sucks because they’ve gotten the ground game going recently. I see Cousins putting up points and Wentz having to match.
Bill: I get the feeling that neither one of these teams will get much going on the ground, but I favor Philadelphia’s chances just because it seems valuable to them to have a seemingly never-ending supply of fresh legs to run the football, whereas Washington insists on ramming Matt Jones into the line for 2-3 yards over and over again when there’s strong evidence that, of the 3 running backs who get playing time in Washington, Jones is the worst.
Jim: Yeah, but at least they barely hand the ball off. So brutal watching him run. I think it comes down to Cousins. He’ll be chucking it from the jump, he’s going to be under fire, but he’s got weapons. Wentz not so much, and he has Josh Norman to deal with as well.
Bill: Ok, so for the interest of sanity, I propose we gloss over Browns/Titans, Jaguars/Bears, and Steelers/Dolphins, since those games feature a combined 9 wins and the Steelers have 4 of them.
Jim: All for that.
Ravens @ Giants (1:00 EST)
Jim: I’m not sure which side of the fence I come down on when it comes to Ben McAdoo. He’s either not fit to coach in the NFL, or he may not have his sea legs yet. I don’t think this game can convince me of one or the other, but within a few weeks, I’ll be more comfortable judging him. This offense is clunky as hell and it’s the least fun to watch when it’s floundering because it’s capable of so much more. Maybe I’m delusional, but I think one great game where the floodgates are opened and all of Beckham, Cruz, and Shepard get theirs, that fixes a lot of things. It might disguise McAdoo’s struggles, or it could be a sign of better things to come, but I’ll take it whatever way it comes. Even if it is a mirage, I just want to see something from these guys. I’m always glossing over the Giants defense, but I just don’t worry about them as much, and that would have been a crazy statement to make before the season started. Joe Flacco doesn’t scare me, Big Blue is getting healthy in the secondary, and Steve Smith might not play. It’s all on Eli and his receivers again, and it pains me how little confidence I have in them right now.
Bill: I’m glad we’re on the same page about McAdoo because I’m going to be harsh on him here in that I don’t think he’s fit to be an NFL coach. I’ve seen guys come out and have rough starts to their seasons, but something about McAdoo doesn’t check the box for me. There’s something about McAdoo I’m not really feeling. In all honesty, I think it’s the fact that I doubt his coaching credentials. If we are looking at it objectively, he was an above-average offensive coordinator that the Giants hired so he wouldn’t go be some other team’s head coach. As we can see from McAdoo and Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay, this approach doesn’t really seem to work. This is put up or shut up time for the Giants, and it’s time for them to get Odell Beckham involved in a major way. There’s no one on the Ravens who can hang with this guy, and if they want to win, they’re going to have to get the ball into the hands of their best playmaker. Rashad Jennings seems to be on track to play, which helps a lot seeing as none of their other running backs have impressed. Seriously though, when was the last time the Giants drafted a useful running back? I feel like they’ve been striking out a lot at that position.
Jim: Yeah, it’s been tough back there. I think Paul Perkins might be good, it was nice to see his snap count increase a bit in the last couple weeks. I agree with the notion of feeding Odell, but I can also see Jimmy Smith hanging with him here and there – but we agree, most of the time Beckham will win. If they threw fists, I wouldn’t be shocked. More than anything I think the offense needs to feel more organic, more like a pick-up game. Get everyone involved, Eli will throw it to the best guy (OBJ) when he’s open, but knowing when not to as well. I made the analogy in my column earlier this week, but it’s so true I’ll mention it again. Their offense feels like how it sounds when someone is failing miserably in Guitar Hero. Missed note after missed note.
Bill: Agreed on that. The offense has to be firing on all cylinders, and none of these guys have looked fully comfortable this year. You mentioned in a separate conversation that Flowers was a problem on the offensive line, and I agree with that as well.
Jim: And it’s public knowledge. He’s infamous.
Chiefs @ Raiders (4:05 EST)
Bill: So the Chiefs are coming off their bye, and the Raiders sit at 4-1 and they’re home. I’m sure you’ve heard that the last time the Raiders started 4-1, they went to the Super Bowl. I’ve covered that Derek Carr has taken a major statistical leap, and I’ve also touched on the fact that Crabtree and Cooper are the best wide receiver duo in the NFL this year. Justin Houston is ramping up his rehab, but his return is still weeks away. I guess my main question about this game is whether or not the Chiefs have enough offense to hang with the Raiders for a full game? The Raiders defense has been improving over the last several weeks, even though that’s not reflected in the points they’ve allowed. They have a lot of free agents that are still learning to play together, and it is starting to come together. After this Chiefs game, the Raiders are taking a road trip to Florida for games against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, so if Oakland can pull this Chiefs game out, they have a very legitimate chance to start the season 7-1. Already in the driver’s seat of the AFC West, that sort of start all but guarantees them a spot in the playoffs from where I’m sitting. I think that the Chiefs have one very good cornerback in Marcus Peters, but they do not have someone to cover whichever receiver that Peters isn’t on. For these reasons, I expect Oakland to get it done against the Chiefs. Your thoughts?
Jim: 100 percent on board with everything you just said. Oakland’s offense is growing, and is what it is at this point – which is the third best offense in football according to DVOA. At the very least, they’re top ten. The defense hasn’t come together quite yet, like you mentioned, and I think it will only get better as the pieces meld. I think the Raiders will beat the Chiefs because the Raiders are a good to very good team, but also because I’m kinda done with Kansas City in it’s current form. This offense isn’t good enough, and it hasn’t gotten better over the years. Carr will set a bar too high for Smith to reach, and unless he makes a good deal of mistakes and Oakland’s defense can’t handle the least-watchable offense in the league, I don’t see the Chiefs winning this one.
Bill: Is it time for the Alex Smith experiment to end? He’s pretty much the quarterback equivalent of WAR right? Wins Above Alex Smith?
Jim: Yeah, I’m down to pull the plug. Maybe somewhere else. He could be the perfect quarterback for Denver. He can be a Brian Hoyer or something. Don’t think he’s trash, but him and this sad excuse for an offense need to go.
Bill: I agree. Does that mean it’s also time to pull the plug on Andy Reid? Hindsight being 20/20, it almost seems like they could have cut bait with Reid and rolled with Pederson right?
Jim: Yeah and shipped out Smith and Charles for some draft picks or something, anything that would help the imminent rebuilding process. This team isn’t a quick fix either, it’s in need of renovation, and Andy Reid will be (and should be) one of the first pieces that go when they decide to take the plunge. But like his quarterback, I think he’s worthy of another shot somewhere else. Although he had a hand in putting this team together, it’s not all on him, and considering the lack of skill position talent, he’s done well here. He’s done here though.
Bill: Agreed. Moving on.
Atlanta @ Seattle (4:25 EST)
Jim: The best defense against the best offense. Both teams are awesome birds. Good quarterbacks. This is the game I’m the most excited about. We both know the story of the Falcons last year, but this doesn’t have the same feel to it. Coleman and Freeman compliment each other and spell each other as well as any duo in the league. Julio Jones is benefitting from great play calling and an impressive supporting cast, and he might be my favorite player in the NFL to watch right now (I take that back, this year is Larry Fitzgerald’s moment). It certainly matters for this game, but a suspect defense might not be a death sentence for this team as long as their offense is elite. The Seahawks need no introduction, and we know their defense is the ultimate test for Atlanta. Although we saw signs of life from the Falcons’ pass rush last week, I don’t see Russell Wilson struggling against one of the worst defenses in football.
Bill: If the pass rush plays like it did last week, Seattle’s offensive line doesn’t offer much in the way of stopping them. Sherman could wipe out Julio Jones and force Atlanta back into their game plan where they throw a bunch of short passes to their running backs and let them pick up yards in bunches. I don’t think this is the Seahawks defensive unit of the past, even though I know the numbers say they are one of the best in the league. This feels like it could be Atlanta’s year, and I think it will be interesting to see how they match up with Seattle. Also- Matt Ryan for MVP?
Jim: Sure, why not. He’s still a little Andy Dalton-ey to me until he really makes some noise in the playoffs. I’d like to see how Seattle might deal with a complete breakdown up front, with Beasley getting loose and whatnot. You figure they have to have a contingency plan for when shit goes wrong up front, right?
Bill: Let the record show that Ryan did take the Falcons to an NFC Championship game in which Julio Jones almost sent them to the Super Bowl himself. I don’t think Seattle has a contingency plan beyond let Russell Wilson scramble around and try to make plays with his feet. The re-emergence of Jimmy Graham may be this team’s saving grace, as they have a viable option behind “hope Doug Baldwin can carry the offense”.
Jim: And maybe eventually Tyler Lockett will do stuff.
Bill: Yeah he seems to be all hype at this point. His breakout season is yet to materialize.
Cowboys @ Packers (4:35 EST)
Bill: So Dak Prescott takes the Cowboys and their devastating running game on the road to Lambeau this week. This is a fascinating matchup because the Cowboys have been absolutely dominating teams on the ground this year, whereas the Packers have the best run defense in the NFL. Something has to give, and I’m not sure if that means the Packers defense will yield to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas offensive line, if Dak Prescott throws his first interception(s?), or if Aaron Rodgers finally starts playing like the player he used to be, which seems to be more and more distant of a memory every week.
Jim: It’s only a matter of time until we see Prescott get his first lumps, and this defense is quite capable of giving him said lumps. It might not get to that though, because I think the “something that has to give” will end up being Green Bay’s run defense. Now that they’ve got Zeke rolling, I think he’ll be near impossible to stop. I saw all this in my preseason nightmares. But if I’m wrong, and the Packers can force Prescott to make some tough throws on the road, I expect them to win. It hinges on the Dallas run game, and since it’s been so great so far, I expect it to continue to be great. If you beat Zeke you put Prescott in a spot where he might remind Cowboys fans why they’re supposed to miss Tony Romo.
Bill: Yeah I mean, the Cowboys are in a real position to be 5-1 after this game. Everyone hyped the Patriots being able to tread water when Brady was suspended, but if they beat the Packers here and roll into their bye at 5-1, with Romo set to come back after the bye… I mean that’s outstanding, right? I’ve advocated that they should probably stick with Dak given his success, but they see Romo’s progress behind closed doors and know whether or not he is in a position to play at an All-Pro level. If he is, and Dez Bryant is finally healthy, with Elliott running like this, that’s terrifying for the NFC East. I still think their defense is too shoddy to hold up, but they’re certainly intriguing.
Jim: Yeah, they’ve got an offense that could rival Atlanta’s if Romo comes back and is effective. Even with Dak and no Dez, it’s one of the best in the league. Their overall setup is similar to the Falcons also in the sense that their defense gets a free pass. The way to beat these kinds of teams is to possess the ball for big chunks at a time, keeping the opponent’s potent offense off the field while also winning the fatigue battle on both ends. Rodgers doesn’t need to be vintage Rodgers to pull out a victory here, even though that would all but ensure a Packers win. The way I see it, it’s all about the first few drives. Dallas is notorious for setting the tone early, and doing that on the road changes the complexion of everything, taking the air out of the stadium and all that stuff. Green Bay has to prevent them from doing that, and they need to make sure their offense has a strong presence in this game, and that it doesn’t get pushed to the margins because Zeke is holding the ball the whole time.
Bill: Do you think we’ve seen the last of vintage Rodgers?
Jim: No, I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Can’t tell how far, but he’ll get there. He might have to change his approach or his play style to get back to the tippy-top, but even if that doesn’t happen, he’s going to get out of this funk. I still think the Wilt Chamberlain comparison is apt. They’re both supremely talented, and Rodgers has a bit of that “I’m doing this to show everyone that I’m the best” feel to his game that Wilt was all about. Maybe I’m totally off, and I’m misjudging this man, but I see a little bit of diva in him. He’s like Uncle Rico, but he can really throw. I dunno, that’s just one thing that I’ve picked up on by watching him all these years. Maybe if he reigned it in a little, the offense would be better for it.
Bill: McCarthy may be the problem there, but I can’t help but get the feeling that Rodgers may not be as good as he used to be anymore. It’s crazy that both of these teams only have 1 loss and could potentially both be Wild Card teams, or miss the playoffs
Jim: Yeah that’s true, but we’ve already seen in this season teams win a couple in a row, then lose a few in a row. Tough to project, but I think we know the Lions and the Bears are bad. That helps. We don’t know much about the NFC East, and that includes the guy receiving the snaps for the 4-1 Cowboys.
– Bill Annechino (Twitter)
– Jim Bearor (Twitter)