Patriots at Seahawks, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
Cam Newton versus Russell Wilson should have been Brady-Manning for a new generation.
Newton and Wilson have met eight times, twice in the playoffs. Between them, they possess a Super Bowl ring, three NFC championships, an MVP award, and nine Pro Bowl selections. They were two of the brightest stars of the mid-2010s. They were also at the forefront of the read-option revolution, with all of its strategic and sociopolitical implications, along with Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin, and a few others. Sunday's Patriots-Seahawks matchup should be billed as Cam-Russ IX, a heavyweight bout, one of the NFL's annual redefining moments. Sunday's game remains important, a showdown of two perennial playoff teams, a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX with a handful of principle characters still on hand, etc. But it is not quite what it should be.
Wilson is still great, better than he was when he appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls, a worthy MVP candidate in a typical year. He's big, but the Seahawks have gotten smaller; they've been so content to settle for second place and a wild-card berth for so long that they may not realize they are almost purposely aiming for it with their restrictor-plate offense and hinky draft philosophy. Newton, meanwhile, became a shadow of himself after his 2015 MVP and Super Bowl run, then a shadow of a shadow by 2018, a gimpy knuckleballer trying to throw 40-yard strikes on the run.
As for their revolution, it became overtly politicized and covertly ostracized, its on-field tactics bundled with off-field semiotics to the point that the league and its mouthpieces were eager to declare the read-option offense a failure and Mike Glennon a potential savior. Wilson hovered above the fray, Newton burrowed beneath it (his shrillest critics never really bothered speaking in code), but Wilson and Newton were not destined to lead a generation of dual-threat quarterbacks the way Brady and Manning kicked open the doors and expectations of 21st century passing offense. Not right away, anyway.
Wilson-Newton showdowns started out as defensive duels. The Seahawks won the first three games by finals of 16-12, 12-7, and 13-9, then won a playoff game 31-17 on three Wilson touchdowns and a Newton pick-six. Wilson was always destined to play the role of Brady, the capital-w Winner who doesn't care about stats, with Newton as Peyton, purportedly gunning for personal glory but coming up short in "the big game." Newton briefly flipped the script against the Seahawks in the 2015 playoffs, only to stick to it in the Super Bowl.
The last Newton-Wilson bout was an absolute gem, with Wilson leading a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback for a 30-27 Seahawks win in 2018. But that game was also surrounded with the whiff of ruin: both teams entered at 6-5, but the Panthers were in freefall, and with the Legion of Boom crumbling, the Seahawks were getting used to living and dying with Wilson's weekly highwire act.
Now Newton is on a comeback tour, while Wilson is once again jockeying for position in a crowded playoff field. The NFC has spat out increasingly unimpressive pocket passers as its Super Bowl representatives -- Matt Ryan, then Jared Goff, then Carson Wentz/Nick Foles, then Jimmy Garoppolo -- almost as if it is thumbing its nose at the Wilson-Newton-Kaepernick hegemony we briefly had but didn't dare to hold. That's no knock on the Falcons, Rams, 49ers or (heaven forbid) the Eagles, mind you, but an indictment of how much the Seahawks could have accomplished if they gave Wilson an offensive line and the Panthers might have achieved if they did not surround Newton with Norv Turner, Mike Shula, Kelvin Benjamin, and a shaky line of his own. This was a conference ripe for taking, and other organizations took turns taking it.
A Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl in 2020 is fun to think about but unlikely to happen. At least the AFC is full of quarterbacks capable of building on the work that the Newton-Wilson generation started, and knee-jerk critics of "mobile" quarterbacks (I'm trying really hard to be diplomatic here) now fight a hopeless rearguard action.
Wilson leads the all-time series 6-2. Despite his reputation as a one-man band, he's the one with the credible weapons in this matchup, with Newton throwing at a 20-degree angle to the ground to reach Julian Edelman when not trying to figure out who the heck Ryan Izzo and J.J. Taylor are. This should be a solid Seahawks victory, but I hope that doesn't upend the Newton Resurrection Tour before it starts. Brady-Manning only became mythical when they reached their 30s. And really, both of these quarterbacks should just be hitting their stride.
Prediction: Seahawks 26, Patriots 17.
Ravens at Texans, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Welcome to a new Walkthrough segment: the Bill O'Brien Employment Doomsday Clock, a checklist of all the buffers and circuit breakers the Texans coach/general manager/generalissimo has placed between himself and a much-merited dismissal. Let's see where we stand after one week:
- Lose game with important playoff tiebreaker implications: Check.
- Lose another one: Pending this week.
- Lose yet another one: Pending next week at Pittsburgh.
- Relieve coordinator Tim Kelly of play-calling duties: Kelly will be blamed for the fact that Zach Fulton and Tytus Howard are less effective at protecting the people behind them than the Facemask Courtesy Specialists at the door of the Trader Joe's in East Gunsville, Hoaxarkana.
- Fire a Senior Lieutenant: Pickings are getting slim here. Choices include defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver (failure to turn Vernon Hargreaves into Deion Sanders), player personnel director Matt Bazigan (title is too impressive) or associate head coach Romeo Crennel (too obvious a potential replacement).
- Shocking deadline trade: Whitney Mercilus to the Broncos in October for Royce Freeman and a fifth-round pick. How can we expect O'Brien to win when there is so much rebuilding to be done?
- Inevitable collapse of AFC South: Just as all hope appears lost for O'Brien, Derrick Henry will begin busting out the 22-carry, 56-yard stat lines; Philip Rivers' arm will crumble like a pottery shard; and the Texans will back toward the seventh playoff spot.
In summary, O'Brien's job remains rather safe, for now. Let's check back again in about two weeks.
Prediction: Ravens 34, Texans 24.
Falcons at Cowboys, Sunday, 1 p.m.
How this game will go:
- The Falcons will amass 250 yards of total offense in the first half. But their possessions will result in: 1) a 49-yard field goal; 2) a missed 48-yard field goal; 3) a fourth-down stop on the fringe of field goal range; 4) a touchdown (missed extra point); 5 and 6) two punts after holding penalties push them back from the fringe of field goal range.
- The Cowboys will score 17 points on their first three drives, then run out of ideas and start running the same three plays over and over again.
- Calvin Ridley will catch nine passes on 12 targets for 120 yards and a touchdown. Hayden Hurst will catch nine passes on 12 targets for 110 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones will catch nine passes on 12 targets for 130 yards and three uncalled pass interference penalties in the end zone.
- Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup will each catch nine passes on 12 targets for 78 yards.
- The Falcons will record a sack on their opening possession and then never pressure Dak Prescott again.
- Both teams will combine to go 0-for-12 on fourth-down conversions. Neither Todd Gurley nor Ezekiel Elliott will get a carry in these situations.
- If this game somehow went to college-style overtime, forcing the winning team to execute methodically and logically on offense and play tight defense in the red zone, it would end in a tie the moment the sun went supernova.
Prediction: Cowboys 37, Falcons 31.
Bengals at Browns, Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
Sports Info Solutions "credits" Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart with two blown blocks in Week 1. They must have stopped counting in the second quarter. Joey Bosa, typically lined up against Hart, was credited with four pressures; the over-under for Myles Garrett should be a half-dozen. Hart has been one of the NFL's worst blockers for years and has an, um, outspoken personality. If you ever wanted to know what Richie Incognito would be like without talent, watch a Bengals game.
Prediction: Browns 26, Bengals 13.
Rams at Eagles, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Carson Wentz when pressured on Sunday by Washington, according to Sports info Solutions: 13 dropbacks, five attempts, zero completions, eight sacks.
The Rams pressured Dak Prescott 16 times in Week 1, the second-highest total in the league to the Chiefs. Aaron Donald recorded seven pressures (I'm sure some folks have strong, ostensibly data-driven opinions about his run defense, and good for them!), while new arrival Leonard Floyd added four more.
It's gonna be an ugly week here in Eagles country.
Meanwhile, the Rams will face the Bills (at Buffalo in an early game), Giants, and Washington over the next three weeks. They should start the season at least 4-1. Stay tuned.
Prediction: Rams 24, Eagles 20.
Giants at Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.
In East Rutherford on Tuesday morning…
JOE JUDGE: Good morning, staff. Time for me to evaluate Monday night's performance. Our special teams looked excellent, so I give myself an A-plus-plus. Defensive coordinator, report!
PATRICK GRAHAM: Sir! My unit played well overall. They simply ran out of gas in the fourth quarter.
JUDGE: Agreed. You pass muster. Offensive coordinator, report!
JASON GARRETT: Sir, let me just say how excited I am to be here. I loved all of the punting and field goal kicking on fourth-and-short. You know what I always say: better to kick it than stick it!
JUDGE: I don't know what that means. And stop sucking up. I have no idea where you learned to become such a sycophant.
GARRETT: Really? You don't?
JUDGE: Anyway, the offensive line was putrid, the quarterback turned the ball over, and the running back averaged 14.4 inches per carry. Worst of all, you upstaged me during the television broadcast.
GARRETT: That's just because I am well-known to the broadcasters. And I am upbeat and approachable. You are earning a media reputation as (nervous mumble) a combative eccentric who won't even call players by name.
JUDGE: Nonsense. As punishment for Monday's effort, you must run 10 laps.
GARRETT: But sir…
JUDGE: Make it 20 laps. Now, instant replay spotter, report!
ABBY THE GOLDEN RETRIEVER: Woof!
JUDGE: What's that girl? You say that I should have challenged that incomplete pass at the goal line in the first quarter? The one that looked like a fumble that an offensive lineman pounced on in the end zone for a possible touchdown?
JUDGE: I would never want to score a touchdown that way. That's not real football. You should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting that. Run 20 laps.
ABBY: (Sad puppy whimper.)
JUDGE: Now to watch some film of the Bears quarterback. He just defeated my old buddy Former Patriots Defensive Coordinator, so he is clearly very dangerous.
(Meanwhile, outside team headquarters…)
GARRETT: Did you at least try to tell him that I fell down a well?
ABBY: (Resignedly) Woof.
Prediction: Bears 23, Giants 21.
Lions at Packers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
As you probably know, rookie running back D'Andre Smith dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass in the waning seconds of the Bears 27-23 Week 1 loss to the Bears. But what was a rookie running back even doing on the field and running a deep route into the end zone in the game's closing seconds?
The Lions have invested two second-round picks in running backs over the last three drafts and grabbed Adrian Peterson before the start of the season. Yet for all that effort, they don't have a traditional third-down back. Johnson, Swift, and Peterson are all capable of catching a swing pass, but none of them is even close to the versatile Austin Ekeler type most teams try to have in their backfield committees. The Lions used Ty Johnson in that role last year, but Johnson averaged 4.5 yards per reception after catching a total of 29 passes in college, so no one will mistake him for Alvin Kamara. There's also return specialist Jamal Agnew, who is listed as a receiver on the Ourlads depth chart and a cornerback by Pro Football Reference but only appears to wander onto the field in non-special-teams situations by accident: not a great option for a do-or-die end-of-game target.
Based on the design of the play (watch it here) -- the back streaking down the sideline while a pair of receivers run a scissors concept in front of him -- the element of surprise may have been a factor: Swift drew a linebacker in coverage, whereas a Kamara type might have merited a defensive back or altered the defensive call in some way. If that was the reasoning, then shouldn't Peterson have been in the backfield? He's surely the best pass protector of the Lions backs, the least likely one to be venturing downfield, and also the least likely one to panic when the ball came his way in a critical situation.
Folks, I'm starting to get the impression that the Lions don't really know what they are doing. But don't despair: they will solve their third-down back situation next year by signing James White for four years and $40 million.
Prediction: Packers 28, Lions 17.
Broncos at Steelers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Ben Roethlisberger was just 4-of-9 on first downs on Monday night, with most of his passes short (those four completions gained 4 total yards through the air), wobbly, and a little weird. He was 9-of-13 on third downs for 114 yards, two touchdowns, and eight conversions, four of them on third down and 7-plus yards.
There's a hypothesis that aging quarterbacks experience a sharp decline in their big-play capability before other skills start to erode. In other words, one 30-yard touchdown per game becomes an incompletion/sack/turnover at age 35, then two per game at 36, and so forth, with no noticeable decline in more routine plays, allowing the fading superstar to look like his same-old self for 75% or 80% of the game. Last week's Brady-Brees matchup provided dueling anecdotal evidence to support the hypothesis.
Based on Monday night's performance, Roethlisberger may be aging backwards: he could still fire both fastballs and well-placed changeups down the field, but short tosses into the flats looked like the hardest thing in the world. Big Ben was always a reluctant short passer, of course, so maybe 40-ish quarterbacks simply age by becoming more like themselves. Or perhaps it was just one game.
Drew Lock looked pretty good against the Titans on Monday night, though I fell asleep watching that game. To clarify, I fell asleep in the third quarter of Steelers-Giants, woke up, wrote an article for another outlet, spooled up Titans-Broncos on NFL Game Pass, and fell asleep watching it. So I will reserve judgment on Lock until he proves he can keep me awake.
Prediction: Steelers 19, Broncos 16.
Panthers at Buccaneers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Tom Brady Excuse-o-Matic, turn-turn-turn,
Tell us the teammate we must burn.
Left tackle Donovan Smith allowed two sacks and received harsh criticism from head coach Bruce Arians, who even said Smith had "the easiest guy to block," some unnecessary shade upon Trey Hendrickson (seven sacks last year) and backup Carl Granderson (an interesting deep-dive prospect I liked in 2019).
For what it's worth, receiver Scott Miller helped cause one sack when he slammed into Smith's back while he was trying to block Hendrickson because the Bucs were setting up a misdirection screen. But overall, Smith indeed had a rough game, and this Buccaneers experiment is only going to work if Brady is never pressured, at all, ever again.
Prediction: Buccaneers 23, Panthers 20.
Jaguars at Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
As a once-in-a-while Walkthrough feature (I will probably forget all of these features in two weeks, but let's enjoy them for now), here is the QB Magical Thinking Index, a rough estimate of the differential between a quarterback's actual value and his perceived value by home fans and/or my colleagues on the midday sports talk circuit.
- Josh Allen, Bills. The infant sons of cult leaders are subject to more critical judgment than Allen gets from Bills fans.
- Gardner Minshew, Jaguars. A run-heavy game plan (12 first down runs vs. eight passes on Sunday). Lots of high-percentage throws (Minshew was 13-of-13 for 95 yards on throws of 5 air yards or less). A tendency to take a sack or scramble for a minimal gain instead of getting rid of the ball. Upset victories in games that not many people watched. Lots of cool narrative hooks. This story inevitably ends with the worst $80-million contract in NFL history. Speaking of which, let's check in on the current titleholder!
- Ryan Tannehill, Titans. He remains perfectly capable of handing off and making most of the routine throws for a wild-card contender with a 1986 offense.
- Mitch Trubisky, Bears. Maybe, after three full years, the lightbulb finally flickered on at about 2:18 local time last Sunday!
- Cam Newton, Patriots. Yes, as discussed earlier, it's great to see him healthy again. How excited would you be about Sunday's performance if he was wearing a Chargers uniform?
If the Titans are the team they claim to be, they should win by at least 24 points. They are not the team they claim to be, of course, but the Jaguars entered the season barely claiming to be a team at all.
Prediction: Titans 21, Jaguars 10.
Bills at Dolphins, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Bills are about to go 2-0, with Josh Allen producing superficially excellent (ignore the fumbles!) statistics. Folks, the conspiracy theorists who believe that forest fires are being purposely set by LGBQT atheists attempting to vote by mail are about to become the second-most irrational people on the Internet.
Prediction: Bills 24, Dolphins 13.
49ers at Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Do the 49ers have a Super Bowl hangover? Let's check the symptoms:
- Red zone deficiency, including an inability to punch in fourth-and-goal and a tendency to overthrow routine tight end screens? Check.
- Clusters of pass interference and roughness penalties that allow an otherwise ineffective opponent to march down the field? Check.
- Sudden unwillingness to stop the opposing quarterback from gashing you with scrambles? Check.
- Troubling doubts about your starting quarterback? Check.
Yep, the 49ers have a Super Bowl hangover, all right. The cure, discovered in the mid-2000s by the Patriots, is to kick the holy living snot out of the Jets, so they'll be feeling better in no time.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Jets 7.
Washington at Cardinals, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
How this game will go (Cardinals offensive series only edition):
- Ten Kyler Murray completions to DeAndre Hopkins;
- At least seven Washington sacks spread among Chase Young, Ryan Kerrigan, and others;
- Seven productive Murray scrambles that were nearly sacks by Young, Kerrigan, and others;
- Six chunk plays on intricate screen concepts involving quads or full-house pistol formations, four of which will be negated by holding or illegal formation fouls;
- Five targets for Christian Kirk, all of them incomplete;
- At least two plays from formations that looked like someone just wandered onto the field, tried to act like he belonged, and just stood 10 yards behind Murray or next to Kenyan Drake, or hopped onto Larry Fitzgerald's shoulders;
- At least one less turnover than the Eagles produced, meaning Washington won't start five drives in opponents' territory like they did in Week 1;
- One unlikely 2-0 Cardinals team.
Prediction: Cardinals 22, Washington 17.
Chiefs at Chargers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
The Chiefs are 11-1 in the last 12 meetings, with their last loss coming in December of 2018: Philip Rivers threw two late fourth-quarter touchdowns and a two-point conversion in that game for a 29-28 comeback victory. The Chiefs were 8-3-1 against the spread in those games and are 25-10-1 ATS in divisional games since 2014, which is interesting because they have hardly been a lone divisional powerhouse during that span (which includes a Broncos Super Bowl season), and the house has been working frantically to keep up with Patrick Mahomes for over two years (Sunday's line leapt from -7 to -8.5 right after opening).
Speaking of houses, now that the Chargers are crashing with the Rams, let's enjoy their new team fight song!
Prediction: Chiefs 30, Chargers 17.
Vikings at Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Colts have won all five meetings between these two franchises this century. Randall Cunningham threw three touchdown passes to Cris Carter (four overall) in the last Vikings victory back on December 21, 1997. Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh was knocked out of the eventual 39-28 Vikings win midway through the second quarter; backup Kelly Holcomb managed to throw two interceptions and fumble before halftime, leading to 21 Vikings points. Harbaugh returned to rally the Colts, then got injured again, and Holcomb turned the ball over two more times.
The Colts won the last meeting 34-6 on December 21, 2016. Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford completed five passes in the first half, but three of them netted 1, 2, and 4 yards, so the Vikings generated just two first-half first downs. Bradford also threw an interception before halftime, which led to an Adam Vinatieri field goal. Andrew Luck threw two touchdowns in that game.
Philip Rivers and Kirk Cousins take up a combined $46 million in cap space and the most interesting thing I could think of for this game involved Jim Harbaugh and Sam Bradford.
Prediction: Vikings 26, Colts 21.
Saints at Raiders, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
How the Saints offense can remain viable if Michael Thomas (ankle) is out or limited:
- (Insert obligatory Taysom Hill wisecrack here.)
- Alvin Kamara moves to slot receiver full time, with Latavius Murray and Ty Montgomery splitting time in the backfield. That'll silence the critics of his big contract.
- Go full 2019 Eagles with two-tight end sets with Jared Cook and either Josh Hill or rookie Adam Trautman, who is basically a bootleg knockoff Dallas Goedert…
- … or go three-tight ends with an option-heavy offense! (Insert obligatory Taysom Hill wisecrack callback here.)
- Should the Saints sign Antonio Brown? It's a terrible idea, but great for SEO.
- Go full 2015 Broncos and hope for 52 sacks and gobs of turnovers. They're off to an encouraging start, and Emmanuel Sanders is already on board to show you the way!
- Hunker down and hope the rest of the division consists of a rebuilding team, a real-life DFS stack with no defense, and the only starting quarterback on earth who makes Drew Brees look young.
Yep, that last choice may be the best choice.
Prediction: Saints 23, Raiders 21.