Five key NFL Games and predictions for Week 9

In the eyes of most people, the Week 8 slate of games on the NFL’s schedule this year was something of a dud. Outside of the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams clash last week, we really didn’t have any marquee games worth anticipating. But what we lack in Week 8, we more than make up for in Week 9, as there are no less than three heavyweight-caliber matchups on Sunday alone. To borrow a line from Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens: get your popcorn ready. Here are five key NFL Games and predictions for Week 9.

Detroit at Minnesota (-4.5)

With the recent struggles of the Chicago Bears, who’ve lost two of their last three games, the NFC North is effectively wide open. Even though the public perception of these two teams is very different, the Minnesota Vikings are only one-half game back from the Bears, and the Detroit Lions are only one game back. So, calling this a meaningless game couldn’t be any further from the truth.

The truth is, we’re not 100% sure who either of these two teams are. In any other universe, this game would be a laugher. The Minnesota Vikings were supposed to have one of the best collective “one through fifty-three” rosters in the entire NFL. They were one total no-show away from winning the NFC last year, and they added an $84 million quarterback in free agency who was supposed to take this team from “really good” to “potentially unstoppable.”

In fairness, Kirk Cousins has been tremendous for the Vikings. He’s currently #2 the NFL in passing yards per game (315) and tied for 6th in the NFL in passing touchdowns (16) while completing 70.7% of his passes (4th best in the NFL). Wide receiver Adam Thielen, who’s quickly and decisively become Cousins’ favorite target, has also become one of the two most singularly unstoppable wide receivers in the NFL, along with DeAndre Hopkins.

But Cousins throwing to Thielen and Diggs is about the only thing working for Minnesota this year; ironically, the last piece of the puzzle turned out to be the only piece of the puzzle. They’re still dreadful at running the ball (28th in rushing yards per game an 30th in first downs when running the football). The offensive line – which was a major question mark entering the season – is even worse.

The Vikings defense has tightened up since the season started (back when they were getting absolutely torched week after week), so that’s a positive. Although, it’s a bigger concern that a defense with this much talent needed this much time to get things in place.

Meanwhile, under new head coach Matt Patricia, we’re still not sure whether to think of Detroit as a “good bad team” or a “bad good team.” They lost to the red-hot Seattle Seahawks last week by a 28-14 score, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. True to form for an inconsistent team, the Lions mix in performances like the one they had when they defeated New England and Green Bay with complete stinkbombs like the one they had against Seattle.

If Detroit has one thing going for them, it’s that they’re 2-0 over the last two years when playing the Vikings in Minnesota. But considering the Lions’ allow the second-highest average quarterback rating to opposing quarterbacks this season, picking Minnesota to win this game is probably a safe bet. While Detroit is also 5-2 against the spread this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Minnesota cover the spread themselves this week, considering Detroit can’t really stop the pass, and Matthew Stafford has been rather inconsistent lately, so Minnesota’s defense should be able to hold their own.

Pick: Minnesota (-4)

Pittsburgh at Baltimore (-3)

If you’re someone who gets uncomfortable with extreme antagonism or colorful language, then you shouldn’t ask fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens how they feel about the other team, because you’re almost certainly going to get large helpings of both.

What only exacerbates said animosity is the fact that, as you’d expect in any other year, this game has major implications for both teams, regarding the AF North race.

The Steelers sit atop the division, but they’re only one-half game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals, while Baltimore is looking up at both of them while sitting 1.5-games behind Pittsburgh.

Truth be told, even though the Steelers would absolutely loathe losing to the Ravens, this game probably means a bit more to Baltimore, when you look at the grand scheme of things.

Baltimore started the season with a 3-1 record, but they’ve lost three of their last four, and now have a 4-4 record at midseason. It’s an apropos record for head coach John Harbaugh, who’s now sporting a record of 44-44 since winning the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. There were already whispers before the season started that Harbaugh might be on the hot seat, and if the bottom keeps falling out after Baltimore’s fast start, that seat is going to get white-hot in a hurry.

While the Ravens’ offense has been better than it has in year’s past, in what shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, this game is going to be – in large part – about how they manage to slow down Pittsburgh’s offense, which is starting to hit its stride in the post-Todd Haley era.

Ben Roethlisberger, who is showing signs of aging, has (still) thrown for at least 250 yards and a touchdown in every one of the Steelers games this year. We’ve heard Antonio Brown’s name a lot less frequently this year, but he still leads the NFL with eight touchdown receptions.

And running back James Conner, who’s been admirably filling in for the MIA Le’Veon Bell, is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week, after piling up 212 yards of total offense last week against the Cleveland Browns. Conner is currently 3rd in the NFL with 599 yards rushing, and 4th in rushing yards per game (85.6). He’s also tied for the league-lead with seven runs of 20+ yards, and second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns (nine), only behind Todd Gurley.

Point being, Baltimore has to come to play with a sense of desperation. They’re much better at home than they are on the road. A loss here and the sky will be falling for the Ravens, even if they did beat Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh earlier this year. We’ll give the nod to the Ravens in this game, because they “need” this game more, and because they hold a slight edge over Pittsburgh when the game is in Baltimore; the Ravens are 6-4 at home against the Steelers over the past ten years.

Pick: Baltimore (-3)

LA Chargers at Seattle (-1.5)

How about a battle between the preseason “sleeper team that’s no longer a sleeper because everyone’s talking about them” versus the midseason “sleeper team that’s no longer a sleeper because everyone’s talking about them”?

The fact remains: the Los Angeles Chargers have a 5-2 record this season through seven games, but their two losses came against arguably the two best teams in the NFL (the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs), and since their 1-2 start to the season, they’re 4-0.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of people who believed who wrote off the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, thanks to an offseason of tumult and even more free agent departures. A few smart football people believed that Seattle could even be a dark horse contender to finish with the worst record in the NFL this season.

All of those sound bytes were only amplified when the Seahawks started the season with a 0-2 record, as the offense struggled to find it’s footing under new (and much-maligned) offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

But since the said start, the Seahawks have won four of the last five games, and their last two wins were by no less than two touchdowns. In their 28-14 win over the Detroit Lions last weekend, quarterback Russell Wilson became the second quarterback in the past three years to finish with a perfect quarterback rating (158.3) at the end of the game.

Wilson hasn’t been quite as magical as he was in his near-MVP season last year, but he’s still really good. More importantly, Schottenheimer’s offense isn’t quite as vanilla as we thought it would be. Neither is the just-as-maligned offensive line. Even with Doug Baldwin’s season completely derailed by a bum knee, Wilson is making it work with guys like David Moore, who 99.9% of NFL fans outside of Seattle had never heard of even just a month ago. While Seattle is getting absolutely nothing from their first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (Rashaad Penny), starting running back Chris Carson has justified the preseason hype around him, currently ranking among the top 15 running backs in rushing yards this season, and flirting with a pace that would put him right around 1,000 yards rushing by season’s end.

All of that being said, beware of potential recency bias in this game. With the Chargers having the week off last weekend, and with the Seahawks coming off a big win, we may tend to discount what Los Angeles had been doing because we’re enamored with the talking points for the Seahawks. But Los Angeles’ offense is diverse, quarterback Phillip Rivers is still one of the best in the game, and the defense is getting better each week while it waits for the return of Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa.

While this should be a tremendous matchup, let’s not forget that Los Angeles is probably the objectively better team in this game. A win at CenturyLink Field would go a long way towards cementing their status as a contender in the AFC.

Pick: Los Angeles (+1.5)

LA Rams (-1) at New Orleans

Only during a weekend like this one could a game featuring these two teams be the undercard.

As the only undefeated team left standing in the NFL today, we’ve all handed the title of “best team in the NFC” — if not “best team in the NFL” — to the Los Angeles Rams. But with a win on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints can not only make a legitimate claim to the former designation but perhaps the latter as well.

We know that the Rams are the lone undefeated team in the NFL and that they’re the second-highest scoring team in the league as well. What we also might have noticed, though overlooked because they keep on winning, is that those margins of victory are getting less and less. Four of their last five wins were by a touchdown or less, and two of those three wins were by three points or less. Los Angeles’ offense, under the play-calling of head coach Sean McVay, is still creatively lethal. But the star-studded defense, as a result of injuries at key positions and a lack of depth of others, hasn’t been quite what they envisioned when they splurged in free agency this past offseason. Outside of All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who might be the undisputed best defensive player in the NFL right now, no other player on the Rams has more than three sacks, and they’re quietly a below-average team against the run.

Meanwhile, what we thought was the bugaboo for the Saints might still be the case (namely the defense), considering they still allow the third-highest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks in the league. But they’ve held each of their past three opponents to 23 points or less, and have not only moved up towards the middle of the NFL in yards allowed per game (366) but are actually sitting atop the league in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (72.3).

Given the latter stat, the game-within-the-game will be how the Saints plan to stop running back Todd Gurley, even though he’s effectively unstoppable. Last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers employed a fascinating game plan against the Rams, using five or six defensive backs for almost the whole game. Green Bay effectively said that there’s no point in devoting resources to stop Gurley because that’s basically impossible, so they’d let him get his yardage and production and instead focus on ensuring the Rams are solely reliant on him, and not let Goff beat them as well.

Even though Gurley had 195 combined yards on 31 touches (and two total touchdowns), the Rams still only won by two points, and the Packers almost had a chance to come back and win the game, had it not been for running back Ty Montgomery committing two terrible errors at the end of the game, sealing the Rams’ win.

New Orleans is another team that seems to play better at home than on the road. Considering their only loss of the season came during a weird Week 1 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we believe that they could hand the Rams their first loss of the season.

Pick: New Orleans (+1)

Green Bay at New England (-5.5)

If you’ve chosen a side in the “is Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady the best quarterback in the NFL today” debate, this game is for you. And if you happen to be a fan of great quarterback play, and duels between two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, this game is also for you.

Sure, neither of these guys are at the peak of their powers, but that’s ok. Save for an argument from someone like Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City; we’re still looking at the two best field generals in the game today.

A knee injury that’s still not 100% healthy notwithstanding, Rodgers has again been fantastic this season. Even if his statistical dominance hasn’t been quite on par with what it’s been in years past (though he’s still 3rd in the NFL in passing yards per game), Rodgers has continued to put this team on his back and will them to victory, even in spite of a below-average defense and even worse playcalling.

Considering neither of these teams have a defense worth writing about, we could be in for quite the air show on Sunday. It wouldn’t be surprising to see New England come out and drop as many people into coverage as possible and dare Green Bay to run the ball. Watching the Green Bay offense is maddening in that capacity — they have the second-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL, and stubbornly keep handing the ball to Jamaal Williams, even though he averages a whopping 3.7 yards per carry. And when Rodgers does throw the ball, because of his improvisational style in the pocket, he’s among the top seven quarterbacks in the average time it takes from the snap until when he releases the ball.

For the Patriots, it’s not as much about generating a pass rush on Rodgers, as it is simply keeping him in the pocket and not allowing him to improvise. That’s a good thing for New England because they have the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL to date.

On the other side of the football, Green Bay’s secondary is already an issue (and it’s even thinner after the Packers traded away safety HaHa Clinton-Dix this week), meaning Brady could pick it apart. While Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine knows the Patriots from his time in New England, it also means Bill Belichick and company are very familiar with the things that Pettine and company will try and do.

Whether the folks in Green Bay – starting with General Manager Brian Gutekunst — want to admit it or not, these two teams are headed in opposite directions. New England has reeled off five-straight wins after their 1-2 start to the season, while the Packers are sending mixed messages between their trade deadline moves and the increasing tension between Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy. Factoring that this Sunday’s game is in New England, where the Patriots are tough to beat, we have a hard time recommending anything other than taking the Patriots. Regardless, this is a can’t-miss game in the Sunday night slot.

Pick: New England (-5.5)

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