DEN (1-3) @ NE (2-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
I already did a writeup for Broncos-Patriots last week, but things look a lot different seven days later—from Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore both being back for New England to Melvin Gordon potentially getting suspended (by Denver) for DUI. Also, Drew Lock (shoulder) will return for the Broncos, and they will hope to have at least one of Noah Fant (ankle) or K.J. Hamler (hamstring) to boost their skill-position talent. Either way, though, the Pats have a clear advantage in terms of personnel on both sides of the ball, and Bill Belichick having an extra week to prepare will make it really tough for Denver’s offense to consistently move the ball. As stated last week, Belichick will often allow opponents to run on them in order to stop the passing attack, but I think they’ll do what they can to stop the running game, and rookie wideout Jerry Jeudy is expected to face shadow coverage from Gilmore. To pull off a road upset, Lock needs to be efficient and make plays outside the structure of the offense; I’m just not sure Vic Fangio’s defense will be able to make it enough of a slugfest with Newton back to lead a run-heavy game plan.
Winner: New England Patriots
HOU (1-4) @ TEN (4-0) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Continually hearing about how impressive Tennessee’s win over the Bills on Tuesday night was based on them overcoming COVID-19 seemed a little overblown (remember, the Bills had to prepare two game plans against two of the AFC’s top teams because of the Titans having an outbreak), but there’s no doubt they are using “hate” as fuel, which is dangerous for the rest of the league. In particular, getting A.J. Brown back after he missed two games with a knee injury takes the team to another level offensively, and dating back to last year, Ryan Tannehill has made opponents pay for selling out to stop Derrick Henry. The Texans finally got on the board with a victory in Week 5, but it’s worth noting that they had zero answers for Brown last year (12/238/2 in two games), and Jonnu Smith becoming a great third option on offense will put the defense in a difficult spot. Perhaps the knowledge interim head coach Romeo Crennel has of Mike Vrabel—combined with the success Deshaun Watson has had against the Titans throughout his career (3-1 record)—will carry into 2020, but in my opinion, the edge in both toughness and talent leans towards Tennessee.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
CLE (4-1) @ PIT (4-0) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Browns entering the weekend at 4-1 with a chance to lead the AFC North by late Sunday afternoon is hard to believe based on how they started the season, but head coach Kevin Stefanski deserves credit for changing the culture, and the players deserve credit for buying into it. Of course, there is some definite bad blood between these division rivals after the Myles Garrett incident last year, so the undefeated Steelers will test whether or not Cleveland’s shift is legitimate and lasting. If they fall behind early, the Browns could be in some trouble against an opportunistic defense that has yet to play up to their potential, and it’s important that Baker Mayfield (four interceptions in five games) doesn’t try to do too much by feeling he needs to keep up with Ben Roethlisberger. Plus, the health of the offense as Mayfield (chest), Kareem Hunt (hamstring), and Jarvis Landry (ribs/chest) all come in less than 100% is another factor for Cleveland on the road, and—while fans will hope for a close game—it will be interesting to see if the Steelers have vengeance on their mind if they have a clear lead in the fourth quarter with a chance to pile on. Pittsburgh and Tennessee both winning this week would set up a battle of 5-0 teams next Sunday.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
BAL (4-1) @ PHI (1-3-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Baltimore is averaging 29.8 points per game this season, but there is no doubt that the offense has failed to take a leap forward through five games, and Lamar Jackson needs to play better for them to expect progress in January. Similar to how Carson Wentz isn’t a difference-maker at quarterback without using his playmaking ability, it doesn’t make sense to me that the Ravens have decreased the rushing attempts for Jackson considering it’s what made him the 2019 NFL MVP; Baltimore is favored by a touchdown, but I believe the winner will be determined by which quarterbacks converts more “second-chance” opportunities, and having fans at Lincoln Financial Field will be a definite boost for Philadelphia. Aside from allowing Jackson to run more, the Ravens should commit to rookie J.K. Dobbins as their lead back—something I suggested last week—because it’s pretty clear he brings the most juice and possesses the most versatile skillset at the position. A down-to-the-wire finish is expected, but Baltimore has the better defense to slow down Miles Sanders and emerging wideout Travis Fulgham.
Winner: Baltimore Ravens
WAS (1-4) @ NYG (0-5) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
One of the best performances of Daniel Jones’ rookie campaign came last December in a 41-35 victory over Washington in which he threw for 352 yards and five touchdowns, but the second-year quarterback is in a definite cold-streak (zero touchdowns over the past four games), and Ron Rivera will have the defense more prepared than the 2019 group was. Furthermore, Chase Young was obviously not around last year, and the first of many battles against fellow top-five pick Andrew Thomas will be fun to watch—but a definite test for New York’s blindside protector. On the other side of the ball, Giants edge rusher Lorenzo Carter (Achilles) being done for the season is a huge loss, and Washington’s offensive line is going to have a much easier time against New York than they had trying to stop Aaron Donald from wrecking the game last week (though Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams lead a strong interior, too). The NFC East being wide open makes this a key clash despite a combined 1-9 record, so giving Kyle Allen another start over Alex Smith is probably a good move for Washington because a) he has more experience in the system, and b) three quarterback changes in five weeks isn’t the way to build chemistry. That said, I’m going with Joe Judge to get his career first win after a last-second loss in Week 5.
Winner: New York Giants
ATL (0-5) @ MIN (1-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Vikings absolutely suffocated Atlanta’s offense last year in the opener until Matt Ryan threw two late touchdowns after being down 28-0, but even if superstars Julio Jones (hamstring) and Dalvin Cook (groin) are both out, Sunday should be a much more competitive matchup. One big reason for that is Mike Zimmer’s defense not being close to what it’s been in previous seasons, and Calvin Ridley’s ability as a route runner will be a unique challenge for young cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Mike Hughes. Against the run, Minnesota needs to contain Todd Gurley coming off his best game of the season (14 carries for 121 yards and a touchdown), and in general, I doubt the firing of head coach Dan Quinn will have any impact on Matty Ice and the offense. Where we could see some changes is on defense, though effort had never been a problem under Quinn—making a quick turnaround unlikely. Atlanta will probably come out and finally get a win just when I stop picking them, but the Vikings are headed more clearly in the right direction and don’t appear panicked despite their 1-4 start.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings
DET (1-3) @ JAX (1-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
People seem to scoff at these kind of stats, but it’s no mistake that Jacksonville won the opener by throwing the ball just 20 times, and they’ve gone without a win since then as Gardner Minshew has attempted 40+ passes in every game. Maybe it won’t matter how they attack Detroit this week because they’ve been vulnerable both through the air and on the ground, but feeding James Robinson is the best bet to get on track, and he can immediately hit Matt Patricia’s defense in the mouth if they’re sleepwalking out of the bye. Trying to stop the Lions offense is a different story, as Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, and T.J. Hockenson are all capable of doing damage—along with the trio of running backs—against a defense that could again be missing their two best players in Josh Allen (knee) and C.J. Henderson (shoulder). Additionally, top wideout D.J. Chark (ankle) being out or less than full strength makes it all the more important to feature Robinson on offense. As the healthier and more rested team, this is a game the Lions need to win.
Winner: Detroit Lions
CIN (1-3-1) @ IND (3-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Colts are another AFC South team that needs to have a stronger commitment to the running game, and this could be the week where rookie Jonathan Taylor finally breaks out after less than 80 total yards in each of the past three games. It’s unfortunate that Cincinnati won’t get an extended opportunity to have D.J. Reader (quad, IR) and Geno Atkins on the field together than more than one game, but Indy’s bullying offensive line isn’t going to feel bad about it, and the Bengals—who have allowed the third most rushing yards per game with Reader in the lineup—could be in for a long day if Taylor is given 20-25+ touches. On offense, there is concern about the normally soft-spoken A.J. Green becoming disgruntled, and I honestly don’t blame him, as he thought he’d be a central piece on offense with Joe Burrow under center, but the weekly game plan hasn’t made it a point to give him shots on the perimeter. Although the weapons are there to move the ball, Burrow could have another rough outing this weekend against a defense that has quietly allowed the fewest passing yards per game in the league and currently leads the NFL with nine interceptions. The Colts should take care of business at home.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
CHI (4-1) @ CAR (3-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
I thought that Matt Rhule was the best long-term hire of the 2020 coaching cycle based on how successful he was building up programs at Temple and Baylor, but the Panthers are way ahead of the projected curve at 3-2 this year, and the defense in particular has been a major surprise during their three-game winning streak—allowing just 17.7 points per game against the Chargers, Cardinals, and Falcons. Most impressive is that the team is young on both sides of the ball, so the experience everyone gains this year will benefit Rhule’s team in 2021 and beyond. This week, the Bears are coming in as surprising underdogs despite just beating Tampa Bay, and Khalil Mack (2.0 sacks against the Bucs) needs to keep up the intensity to get Teddy Bridgewater on the ground for the first time since Week 3. The spread-the-wealth attack makes it difficult to defend all the playmakers Carolina has, but this could be an opponent that causes them to miss Christian McCaffrey (ankle), and the Chicago offense is only going to get better as Nick Foles builds a stronger rapport with his weapons.
Winner: Chicago Bears
NYJ (0-5) @ MIA (2-3) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
Joe Flacco did what he could in his first start of the year for an offense that lacks difference-makers, but now the Jets have almost zero star power with Le’Veon Bell getting released, while Miami—with Byron Jones back in the lineup—just had their best performance of the year by dominating the Niners, 43-17. On the bright side, the release of Bell could lead to more playing time for rookie runner La’Mical Perine, and with second-round pick Denzel Mims (hamstring) is set to make his season debut as early as this weekend (but more likely in Week 7), Sam Darnold (shoulder) could return with a young supporting cast that he can grow with as the franchise looks for signs of progress. As for the Dolphins, Ryan Fitzpatrick has done everything he can to keep the starting job, and he just needs to avoid the meltdown game that he’s sometimes been prone to in the past. Also, the veteran should avoid big hits if possible against Gregg Williams’ aggressive defense, though the negative impact of Bell getting released (in terms of morale for a winless team) could spread throughout the roster.
Winner: Miami Dolphins
GB (4-0) @ TB (3-2) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
The NFL probably felt no need to add another game to the late afternoon slate this week because they want eyes on Packers-Buccaneers, and we should get a great game between two of the best quarterbacks in league history. Aaron Rodgers has made things look effortless (even for his standards) so far in Year 2 under Matt LaFleur, but Tampa Bay can cause certainly cause some discomfort with their pass rush and blitzes, which could mean plenty of quick passes—including screens—to keep them honest. Defensively, Green Bay will have a much harder time stopping Tom Brady if Chris Godwin (hamstring) suits up, but the six-time Super Bowl champion is going to be laser-focused either way, and Rob Gronkowski notably showed juice last week with multiple chunk plays; there is still time for the former New England connection to become lethal with Gronk still possibly getting into game shape after a year away from the game. Pass protection needs to be better for Tampa Bay, but if TB12 stays upright for the most part and they have Godwin back in the lineup, I’ll like their chances at home to win an NFC clash that projects to have future implications when it comes to playoff seeding.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
LAR (4-1) @ SF (2-3) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
The middle of October isn’t exactly do-or-die time, but the strength of the conference—and the NFC West in particular—has San Francisco on the ropes heading into Sunday Night Football, especially when you consider their upcoming schedule (@ NE, @ SEA, v GB, @ NO, @ LAR, v BUF). While he didn’t record a sack in either matchup last season, Nick Bosa (knee) being done for the year is something that will be highlighted against the Rams because of how fast and versatile they can be offensively, and Jared Goff will surely feel safer in the pocket without the star defender (along with multiple running mates) coming off the edge. Fortunately for the Niners, their offense should have everyone back aside from Tevin Coleman (knee, IR), and I think they need to give George Kittle another 15+ targets like we saw in the Week 4 SNF game while featuring Deebo Samuel in a variety of ways to manufacture offense with Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) still hobbled. The more desperate team may prevail if they can force Goff to make a mistake, but outside of last year’s forgettable 20-7 loss in their first meeting, he and Sean McVay have averaged 39.8 points per game against San Francisco in four matchups.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
KC (4-1) @ BUF (4-1) | MON 5:00 PM ET | FOX/NFL Network/Amazon
We aren’t getting a battle of undefeated teams like appeared might have been the case before Week 5, but Chiefs-Bills still features two AFC powerhouses, and I believe it will end up being an AFC Championship Game preview. Right now, the concern for Buffalo is their secondary playing significantly worse than they have in previous years under Sean McDermott, but Tre’Davious White (back) returning would be huge, and the coaching staff is too smart to not have some new looks in store for Patrick Mahomes on Monday. However, I’d be testing Josh Norman all evening if I were the Chiefs, so the veteran cornerback—surely playing with a chip on his shoulder after what happened on Tuesday night—needs be ready to defend the deep ball against Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. For the Bills, Josh Allen was the first to take accountability for their Week 5 loss, but not having John Brown (knee) hurt the entire offense, and I would guess he will end up gutting it out this week because of how important the game is. If so, everyone should have more space, and the deadly four-wide sets will put Allen back into more of that point-guard role and create lighter boxes (including for designed quarterback runs). The big-game experience of Mahomes and Andy Reid is tough to go against, but Buffalo has a chance to send a message to the rest of the league by bouncing back on a short week.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
ARI (3-2) @ DAL (2-3) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
You can say what you want about Jerry Jones and the lack of championship success for Dallas over the past 25 years, but signing Andy Dalton in the offseason was good team-building, and unlike most franchises that lose a top-end quarterback/leader, they are far from finished this year. Even if you aren’t sold on Dalton, he’s surrounded by A+ playmakers, and getting thrown right into the fire last week to set up the game-winning field goal should have the team confident in the new starter. Cardinals-Cowboys projects to be a shootout as the final matchup of Week 6, and Dalton outdueling Kyler Murray would really give Dallas momentum for the final ten games. On defense, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s possible return from a collarbone injury suffered in the opener would be a needed one, but Arizona has too many playmakers for Mike Nolan’s defense to contain, especially if Murray continues to do damage as a runner. I thought about taking Dallas with Chandler Jones (bicep) out for the year, but it’s asking a lot to put up 30-35 points in the first start for Dalton, which might be what it takes.
Winner: Arizona Cardinals