|Browns at Bengals||49ers at Saints||Rams at Cardinals|
|Titans at Ravens||Steelers at Jets||Giants at Seahawks|
|Chiefs at Bills||Falcons at Buccaneers||Bears at Packers|
|Dolphins at Lions||Broncos at Raiders||Panthers at Eagles|
|Cowboys at Jaguars|
(Byes: Houston, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New England, San Diego, Washington)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, David Diehl, Laura Okmin
- Keys to the game: The Falcons embarrassed the Bucs on national television during a 56-14 beat down on “Thursday Night Football” in Week 3. But that was before injuries hijacked Atlanta’s offensive line and forced the Falcons to reign in their once-potent passing attack, limiting snaps for the likes of Devin Hester. One of the Bucs’ few strengths has been defending the run (3.8 yards per carry), but that hasn’t equated to much of a pass rush (13 sacks). The outcome could well hinge on whether Tampa Bay is able to get to QB Matt Ryan before Ryan hones in on the league’s second-worst pass defense.
- The Bucs are making the switch back to QB Josh McCown, with coach Lovie Smith hoping the veteran can trim the number of mistakes holding the offense back. Rookie WR Mike Evans has also emerged since that first meeting, giving the Bucs the twin wideout towers with Vincent Jackson that the team envisioned. And with RB Bobby Rainey running hard, Tampa Bay has the ability to mount a well-balanced offense — if McCown doesn’t add to the Bucs’ minus-4 turnover ratio behind one of the league’s weakest offensive lines.
- Matchup to watch — Falcons C James Stone vs. Bucs DT Gerald McCoy: Stone is making his second career start and will be flanked by veteran OGs Jon Asamoah and Justin Blalock. They will help Stone combat McCoy (5.0 sacks), who the Falcons see as a disruptive presence in the mold of Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh.
- Player spotlight — Falcons LT Jake Matthews: The highly-touted rookie has struggled manning the blind side on a gimpy ankle much of the season, ranking 72nd — and last — among NFL left tackles by ProFootballFocus.com. He’ll square off against high-priced free agent DE Michael Johnson (2.0 sacks).
- Fast facts: The Falcons have not won a road game in an outdoor stadium since beating the Bucs in Tampa on Nov. 25, 2012. … McCown has a 32.8 passer rating in the first half this season.
With a roll of the dice, the slight edge goes to the Bucs looking to avenge a public whipping in Week 3 against a Falcons team that has a seven-goal road losing streak and is 1-11 in its past 12 away from the Georgia Dome.
Our pick: Bucs 30-27
Dallas Cowboys (6-3) vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Wembley Stadium, London – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
- Keys to the game: Dallas might attempt to land a roundhouse punch early after going ultra-conservative in consecutive defeats, but the Cowboys plan to ride RB DeMarco Murray.
- Jacksonville (123.4 rushing yards allowed per game) is third in the NFL with 27 sacks, but the Jaguars’ light front is not an even match against the Dallas offensive line. Jacksonville was steamrolled for 191 rushing yards at Cincinnati last week and 148 in Week 8 against Miami in two games since losing MLB Paul Posluszny.
- WR Dez Bryant has touchdown receptions in the past two games but only five receptions for 45 yards despite being targeted 17 times. If QB Tony Romo (back) is held out, watch for coordinator Scott Linehan to get the ball to Bryant at the line of scrimmage to boost QB Brandon Weeden’s confidence.
- The Jaguars have yet to top 24 points this season, teetering between goals of controlling the ball while not asking QB Blake Bortles, who has 13 interceptions, to win games by himself.
- Matchup to watch — Cowboys DT Henry Melton vs. Jaguars C Luke Bowanko: Melton was destructive in the past two games and Jacksonville’s interior pass protection remains problematic. Bortles has been sacked 19 times in seven games.
- Player spotlight — Jaguars RB Denard Robinson: Averaging 5.0 yards per carry with a skillset similar to Arizona Cardinals RB Andre Ellington (134 total yards last week vs. Dallas), Robinson is the key to Jacksonville’s ball-control game plan. If Robinson doesn’t gain traction, Jacksonville’s ability to extend drives is shot.
- Fast facts: Bortles has eight TD passes, including four of 31 yards or longer (31, 40, 48, 63). … Bryant leads all receivers with 40 TD catches since 2011.
If Dallas plays tight and cautious, the Jaguars are capable of dealing the Cowboys a third consecutive loss. Getting on the board early could do wonders for Bortles, but he’s simply outgunned again.
Our pick: Cowboys 22-15
Kansas City Chiefs (5-3) at Buffalo Bills (5-3)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y. – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots
- Keys to the game: QB Kyle Orton is taking care of the ball and the Bills are plus-seven in turnover margin, while Chiefs counterpart Alex Smith is the model game manager. He has one interception in 169 pass attempts over his past seven games.
- Neither offense could be described as explosive, and each team will lean on special teams and defense to scrap for field position in a matchup that looks even across the board, even if Bills WR Sammy Watkins (groin) cannot play.
- Kansas City’s offensive edge is a consistent ground game with multiple prongs, the most lethal being RB Jamaal Charles. The Bills don’t have their top two backs — Fred Jackson (groin) might try to play at less than full strength — and that heaps a mountain of pressure on Orton.
- The Chiefs are not exotic in their defensive approach, either, getting grand contributions from fill-in ILB Josh Mauga and finally have S Eric Berry back.
- Matchup to watch — Chiefs OT Ryan Harris vs. Bills DE Mario Williams: Harris stepped in for the injured Jeff Allen, who was filling the tackle spot for the suspended Donald Stephenson. Harris is keeping the gig with Stephenson to the roster and his performance improves from week-to-week. He’ll have his hands full in Buffalo with Williams, who has 82.5 sacks over his career and six sacks, a forced fumble and 21 total tackles in eight games.
- Player spotlight — Bills RB Fred Jackson: Hoping to get his injured groin healthy, Jackson’s status for the Chiefs game is unknown. He practiced Wednesday, but with Buffalo playing four days later at Miami, it may not be wise to rush Jackson back. Without him, the load falls to Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown.
- Fast facts: The Chiefs’ longest pass play this season went 34 yards; every other NFL team has a long gain of at least 35. … The Bills have a sack on 7.8 percent of opponents’ pass plays. … The Chiefs lead the NFL with only two TD passes of 20-plus yards allowed.
Sound, disciplined football on both sides could come down to the final possession. Orton leads the NFL in third-down completion percentage (73) and fourth-quarter passer rating, and gets the nod with the Bills at home.
Our pick: Bills 23-22
Miami Dolphins (5-3) at Detroit Lions (6-2)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Ford Field, Detroit – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Jenny Dell
- Keys to the game: This is not the week Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor can placate wide receiver Mike Wallace’s desire to see more vertical shots in the passing game. Detroit’s dominating defensive line is the engine under the hood of the league’s top-ranked defense in terms of points and yards allowed per game. The Dolphins will feed RBs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas and look to set up a high-percentage passing attack for QB Ryan Tannehill, whose passer rating has improved each month.
- The Lions get WR Calvin Johnson back from his ankle injury, and Detroit is healthier across the board coming off its bye week. How aggressively the Lions are able to push the ball downfield will be an interesting facet as the Dolphins also sport a very dangerous defensive line. With RB Reggie Bush also recovered from an ankle injury, QB Matthew Stafford can utilize the screen game to counter an aggressive pass rush.
- Matchup to watch — Dolphins CBs Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan vs. Lions WRs Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate: Detroit is excited to get Johnson back in the lineup opposite Tate, who is fourth in the league in receptions. Grimes has four interceptions over his past five games, but is not likely to shadow Johnson, who will also see plenty of snaps against the feisty Finnegan.
- Player spotlight — Dolphins RG Mike Pouncey: The former Pro Bowl center has settled in nicely in his new position this season, but receives his stiffest test in the former of Lions DT Ndamukong Suh.
- Fast facts: The Dolphins have a winning record at the midway point of the season for the first time since 2003. … Stafford is one of three quarterbacks since 1966 to start three games in which his team overcame deficits of at least 21 points.
Miami is playing extremely well on defense and making solid strides under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. But none of the Dolphins’ three road victories have come against a winning team, and a well-rested Lions team coming off its bye is a tall order at Ford Field.
Our pick: Lions 23-20
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) at New York Jets (1-8)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Otis Livingston
- Keys to the game: Ben Roethlisberger is about the last person the Jets’ injury-riddled secondary needs to see on the opposite side of the ball. Big Ben set an NFL record with six touchdown passes in consecutive games and has a wide receiver corps that now runs at least five deep and shuttles in personnel according to the situation. The Jets failed to adequately address their secondary issues during the offseason, suffered multiple injuries and started a converted safety (Antonio Allen) and an undrafted rookie from North Dakota State (Marcus Williams) last week.
- So what is the Jets’ path to a massive upset? It begins with the league’s third-ranked ground game, which now includes the mobility of QB Michael Vick. While the Steelers are ranked 11th against the run, it’s in large part due to several opponents abandoning the run while digging out of big deficits. The reality is Pittsburgh has struggled against strong running teams, including 191 and 158 yards in two games against the Browns and 157 in the first meeting against Baltimore. But if the Jets fall behind and RBs Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson aren’t the focal point, the team’s minus-15 turnover ratio could add another significant negative number.
- Matchup to watch – Steelers defensive vs. Jets WR Percy Harvin: Pittsburgh’s defense lacks great team speed, and Harvin is getting up to full speed in the offense. Catching 11 of his team-high 13 targets last week for 129 yards.
- Player spotlight – Steelers S Will Allen: Allen will start for Troy Polamalu (knee sprain). While Allen brings 11 years of NFL experience, he lacks Polamalu’s instincts and dynamic big-play flair.
- Fast facts: Steelers rookie WR Martavis Bryant has five touchdown catches over the past three games. … The Jets’ eight-game losing streak is the franchise’s longest since 1996.
Yes, there is a formula for the Jets to push the game into the fourth quarter. But this is a team that has played below its talent level all season, and runs into Roethlisberger on a record tear against a defense starting a cornerback it picked up off the street in September.
Our pick: Steelers 33-20
San Francisco 49ers (4-4) at New Orleans Saints (4-4)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Mercedes Benz Superdome, New Orleans – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
- Keys to the game: RB Frank Gore is averaging a respectable 4.1 yards per carry, but he has a combined 107 over the 49ers’ past seven games. Coordinator Greg Roman is taking heat for not getting Gore more involved, especially as QB Colin Kaepernick was sacked eight times last week. But the Saints have allowed more than 68 rushing yards to only one player this season – Dallas’ DeMarco Murray, the league’s leading rusher. While New Orleans enters with the league’s 27th-ranked pass defense, but 11 of their 17 sacks have come over the past three games. Kaepernick is going to need to make quick decisions – and accurate passes – in a loud road environment.
- Saints QB Drew Brees has a 103.4 passer rating with seven touchdown passes in three home games, all victories. The 49ers enter with the league’s third-best pass defense. Something has to give, and much of it will depend on how consistently the 49ers are able to get to Brees. When New Orleans’ offense is really humming, there is far more balance with the run setting up the pass than most realize. The Saints are averaging 4.8 yards per carry and RB Mark Ingram will be Brees’ best friend if he’s able to set up play-action.
- Matchup to watch — 49ers linebackers vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham: Graham has been targeted a total of just 20 times over the past four games, although he still leads the team with 46 catches, 518 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns. The 49ers have allowed only 325 yards and three touchdowns to tight ends this season.
- Player spotlight — Saints OLB Junior Galette: He leads the team with 6.0 sacks and will attack the right side of the 49ers’ offensive line, which has been one of the unit’s more inconsistent spots in protection.
- Fast facts: 30.6 percent of the plays the 49ers ran in last week’s loss to the Rams resulted in negative yardage. … Brees has an 11-game home winning streak with a 119.8 passer rating.
Jim Harbaugh’s crew is highly resilient, and tends to feed off the type of criticism San Francisco has received nationally this week. That said, Brees engineers and offensive juggernaut at home and the 49ers’ offense remains a talented group on paper that lacks playmakers on game day.
Our pick: Saints 30-27
Tennessee Titans (2-6) at Baltimore Ravens (5-4)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Md. – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein
- Keys to the game: It’s a statement game for the Ravens, who cut two cornerbacks after Ben Roethlisberger ripped through the secondary for six touchdown passes Sunday night.
- Baltimore is fighting to stay out of last place in the AFC North following consecutive losses. More efficient play from QB Joe Flacco in the horizontal possession-type routes puts the pressure on defenders to avoid mental breakdowns, which have been problematic for the Titans.
- The Titans are physical at the line, but don’t want to rile WR Steve Smith, who is still quick enough to shake the initial jam and get to speed atop his route. More zone coverage could be blended in to counter Flacco’s penchant to launch deep routes and complement surprising RB Justin Forsett’s inside running.
- Titans play-caller and head coach Ken Whisenhunt can use his running backs and TE Delanie Walker to draw the Ravens’ coverage to the middle of the field before winding up rookie QB Zach Mettenberger for the chunk plays the offense needs to back the Ravens off the line. Baltimore is not likely to back off even if the Titans stretch the field, with the idea that Mettenberger’s bravado will eventually bite the Titans.
- Matchup to watch — Titans OT Michael Oher vs. Ravens OLB Elvis Dumervil: Oher returns to his old stomping grounds and is in for an immense challenge. Dumervil leads the team in sacks and Baltimore’s defense has 15 in the past four games. Oher is the NFL’s 70th-ranked offensive tackle according to ProFootballFocus.com.
- Player spotlight — Titans LB Avery Williamson: It’s not all on the rookie, but his role in coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense is vital to foiling the Ravens’ game plan. He’s a bigger linebacker and throwback thumper who can be a liability if forced to make isolation plays outside the hashmarks.
- Fast facts: The Ravens have allowed 34 pass plays of 20-plus. … Baltimore has the NFL’s longest November home winning streak (nine games).
Baltimore’s front seven should easily contain the Titans’ rushing game, leaving Mettenberger to find the antidote for a veteran-laden defense.
Our pick: Ravens 31-17
Denver Broncos (6-2) at Oakland Raiders (0-8)
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at o.Co Coliseum, Oakland, Calif. – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Evan Washburn
- Keys to the game: History — new and old — is against the Raiders. They have lost five in a row in the series and Peyton Manning has played the part of puppet master in four games since he joined the Broncos. The goal will be to mix coverages and hope OLB Khalil Mack at least alters Manning’s view off the edge.
- Denver wants to jump ahead and put rookie QB Derek Carr into a two-minute offense mindset, pulling the Raiders out of a weighty commitment to run the ball. The Raiders will attempt to do what they have failed to do all season: establish some sort of running game in an attempt to keep Manning off the field. Coming off a game where they couldn’t budge the Seattle defense, the line will be challenged by the coaching staff. If Darren McFadden and FB Marcel Reece can pick up yards on first and second down, Carr will get the support he needs and be able to strike downfield to Andre Holmes and Kenbrell Thompkins, with short throws to TE Mychal Rivera.
- The Raiders are 32nd in rushing with 65 yards per game because the team is too often scraping to rally from steep deficits.
- With RB Montee Ball (groin) ready to go, the Broncos should have plenty of opportunity to sharpen the goal of a balanced attack and work to rebuild the swagger of TE Julius Thomas, who was dogged by bracket coverage last week at New England.
- Matchup to watch — Raiders CB Tarell Brown vs. Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas: Brown won’t be the only player who has to deal with Thomas, but he’s the Raiders’ best one-on-one defender and Thomas has done heavy damage to the Raiders since Manning arrived. In four games against the Raiders with Manning throwing the ball, Thomas has 26 receptions for 393 yards and two touchdowns.
- Player spotlight — Broncos WR Wes Welker: He needs one touchdown to reach 50 in his career and become the third undrafted player to do so. Welker said he is unaffected by the back injury he suffered on a hit against New England.
- Fast facts: Manning is 7-0 against the Raiders. … The Raiders’ average margin of defeat in four games against Manning’s Broncos is 20 points.
Denver should cruise if it regains the focus it had before last week’s loss in which self-inflicted wounds were problematic. Oakland is opportunistic but not stocked with the talent to pull a monumental upset.
Our pick: Broncos 37-18
New York Giants (3-5) at Seattle Seahawks (5-3)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Charissa Thompson
- Keys to the game: QB Eli Manning hasn’t always been on the same page as – or received great help from — his wide receivers in recent weeks, but he has thrown a career-high 145 passes without an interception despite the lack of a consistent ground game. The last time he faced the Seahawks, Manning threw five picks during a 23-0 home loss in Week 15 last season. This is a different offense and Seattle’s defense hasn’t been the same intimidating force this season. Opponents are converting 42.6 percent of their third downs against the Seahawks, giving Manning a window to extend drives and keep the game tight into the fourth quarter – if he can avoid multiple turnovers.
- The Seahawks offense continues to be a work in progress. The unit could get two starters back along the offensive line, but RB Marshawn Lynch is missing injured FB Derrick Coleman and the power ground game is rarely given an opportunity to get established. That leaves QB Russell Wilson scrambling to find receivers who don’t generate a ton of separation, although the Giants’ beleaguered secondary should prove quite inviting.
- Matchup to watch — Giants DEs Jason Pierre-Paul/Robert Ayers vs. Seahawks LT Russell Okung: Okung is expected back after missing last week’s game due to a calf strain, but he has been struggling while playing injured all season. Pierre-Paul hasn’t been a big factor much of the season, but Ayers is coming off an excellent game in the loss to the Colts.
- Player spotlight — Giants CB Zack Bowman: With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie already battling through injuries and two other corners down for the season, the Giants lost Prince Amukamara for the remainder of the year as well. That thrusts the veteran Bowman into the starting lineup, with recently-signed Mike Harris likely to be active as well.
- Fast facts: Giants rookie WR Odell Beckham, Jr. has 100-plus receiving yards or a touchdown in three of his four career games. … Including playoffs, Wilson is 20-2 at home with a 103.2 passer rating for his career.
The Seahawks’ offense is hardly clicking on all cylinders, but Seattle faces a brutal closing schedule and knows this is a must-win home game against an injury-riddled opponent traveling cross-country on a short week.
Our pick: Seahawks 30-23
St. Louis Rams (3-5) at Arizona Cardinals (7-1)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, ariz. – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
- Keys to the game: The Rams have a slight edge in time of possession on the season despite sporting the league’s 22nd-ranked run game and a third-string quarterback. The key is they have stayed committed to the ground game as long as possible to help protect QB Austin Davis. That formula will be difficult with an injury-shuffled offensive line tasked with handling the league’s third-ranked run defense. Davis has completed 64.2 percent of his passes, but he has been picked off seven times and sacked 23 despite good mobility. If Arizona can back him into long passing downs, coordinator Todd Bowles will bring pressure looks Davis has never seen in game action.
- After a shockingly slow start, the Rams’ pass rush has dialed up the heat in recent weeks — including eight sacks of mobile 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick last week. The Cardinals have a nice balance of RB Andre Ellington setting the table for QB Carson Palmer, who has thrown just two interceptions while enjoying much improved protection this season. St. Louis must force multiple mistakes by Palmer, who will pick apart the Rams’ secondary given time.
- Matchup to watch — Rams DE Robert Quinn vs. Cardinals LT Jared Veldheer: Quinn had three sacks in the 2013 opener, a big reason Levi Brown was traded three weeks later and the Cardinals threw $37.5 million at Veldheer in free agency. Veldheer has played well, rarely requiring help. After going sackless through five games, Quinn has exploded for five the past three weeks.
- Player spotlight — Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson: Peterson has been called for a league-high 10 penalties this season, nine of which have been accepted. But coach Bruce Arians insists he’s not concerned as Peterson regularly shadows the opponents’ top wideout.
- Fast facts: The Cardinals are 13-3 in their last 16 games and 14-3 in their last 17. They are also seeking their first 8-1 start since 1948. … Davis has a 113.5 passer rating in the first quarter, compared to 80.3 in the second half.
The Rams have picked off Seattle and San Francisco the past three weeks, so Arizona certainly won’t look past their division rival. Arizona’s run defense has backed far more experienced quarterbacks into dangerous situations than the inconsistent Davis.
Our pick: Cardinals 24-13
Chicago Bears (3-5) at Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisc. – TV: NBC
- TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
- Keys to the game: The Packers are dead last in the NFL against the run, and balance was the buzzword from coach Marc Trestman during Chicago’s introspective bye week. Bears RB Matt Forte has excelled in this matchup, including 179 yards from scrimmage in a winning effort at Lambeau last season and 171 in a Week 4 loss.
- Critical to Chicago’s chances: controlling the ball to keep Aaron Rodgers and the Packers off the field and dodging the back-breaking mistakes that have so often done in Jay Cutler in this series. The Bears rushed for more than 200 yards in the Week 4 loss and dominated the ball for 36 minutes, 22 seconds, but turnovers bit Cutler in critical moments.
- With the Packers holding their breath over Rodgers’ hamstring injury, the Bears defense could get a break if injuries force the Packers to go with a pair of first-time starters at guard. Lane Taylor and JC Tretter lined up there midweek – Taylor was at right guard for T.J. Lang and Tretter manned left guard for Pro Bowler Josh Sitton (toe).
- With freezing and perhaps wet conditions in the forecast, the Packers might not be able to downshift into a power-based offense if the line can’t adjust. Running the ball was a struggle without Lang (ankle) in New Orleans. But the Bears are not a great tackling team, and RB Eddie Lacy is capable of being his own blocker at times.
- Matchup to watch — Packers WR Randall Cobb vs. Bears cornerbacks: Chicago doesn’t have a good matchup for slot receivers and Cobb roasted the Bears with seven catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns in September. He’s on pace for 80 receptions and 18 touchdowns.
- Player spotlight — Bears DE Jared Allen: A longtime nemesis of Rodgers, Allen missed the first meeting this season because of pneumonia. Allen had 16.5 sacks against Green Bay in 13 games as a member of the Minnesota Vikings before joining Chicago.
- Fast facts: Rodgers is 11-2 in 13 starts against the Bears. … Cutler is 1-10 all-time against the Packers. … The Bears are 6-25 when Cutler has multiple turnovers.
Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy-Aaron Rodgers tandem owns Cutler, and Chicago’s plentiful shortcomings are too much to overcome.
Our pick: Packers 32-24
Carolina Panthers (3-5-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-2)
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
*Keys to the game: With the pressure mounting on QB Cam Newton during the team’s 0-3-1 slide, the Panthers need to establish some early momentum in the form of an improved ground game. Take out Newton’s 257 yards on 57 carries, and Carolina is averaging a paltry 3.4 yards per carry. That is backing Newton into far too many long passing situations with a receiving corps that lacks proven speed and the ability to gain the quick separation Newton needs to avoid the consistent pass rush he is crumpling under. Philadelphia allows just 4.0 yards per carry, but is replacing a key veteran leader in ILB DeMeco Ryans (Achilles).
The Eagles are also turning to QB Mark Sanchez with Nick Foles out 6-8 weeks with a broken collarbone. For all the talk about how well Sanchez played in relief last week, the fact remains he did throw a pair of picks and this is his first start since 2012. Philly wore Houston down with their tempo offense, running 79 plays. They lead the league averaging a play every 22.9 seconds, and ran the ball a season-high 40 times last week. Expect more of the same with the Panthers’ run defense taking a huge step back this season (131.9 yards per game) to help give Sanchez a soft landing spot.
*Matchup to watch – Eagles RG Matt Tobin vs. Panthers DT Kawaan Short: Tobin, who started the past five games in place of injured Evan Mathis, who returns this week, slides to the right side with Todd Herremans (torn bicep) placed on injured reserve. Short has just one sack, but has an opportunity to make a big impact with the need to respect fellow DT Star Lotulelei.
*Player spotlight – Eagles ILBs Emmanuel Acho/Casey Matthews: Like they did for four games earlier this season when ILB Mychal Kendricks was injured, Acho and Matthews will rotate at the MIKE inside linebacker spot vacated by Ryans. It’s a significantly different role in the Eagles’ offense, with Acho key to preventing a falloff in the run defense.
*Fast facts: Newton has a 63.4 passer rating and has not thrown a touchdown with Carolina holding a lead this season. … Foles had 13 turnovers in seven starts this season. Sanchez has 91 in 63 career NFL games.
We’re not as convinced as some that Sanchez is poised for a career resurgence — he’s still highly turnover-prone. But Philly gets by with its ground game and high-tempo offense steadily grinding Carolina into submission.
*Our pick: Eagles 26-21
Cleveland Browns (6-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-3-1)
The Cleveland Browns maintained their surprising push for a playoff berth with a dominant 24-3 road win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday to climb into a rare share of first place in the division.
The Browns controlled the game on the ground and intercepted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton three times to join Pittsburgh at the top of the AFC North.
Cleveland (6-3) has not been in first place this late in the season since 1986 and took another step toward a first playoff berth since 2002 by knocking Cincinnati out of the lead.
“This is a new team, new Browns,” said Cleveland cornerback Buster Skrine, who hauled in two interceptions. “We hear it every week: ‘the surprise Browns.’ We’re not a surprise anymore. We proved we’re a solid team.”
The Browns got touchdowns from running backs Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, who paced the attack with 94 rushing yards.
Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer tossed for just 198 yards but made key completions that set up points for the road team.
A Dalton interception led to Cleveland’s opening score, a four-yard run by Tate, and they built on the lead with 10 points in the second quarter and a third-quarter score from West.
The Bengals (5-3-1), meanwhile, managed just 165 total yards on the night.
It was a disastrous game for Dalton who completed just 10-of-33 passes for 86 yards in the cold and windy conditions.
“I missed a couple early and could never get into a rhythm,” Dalton said. “We didn’t start fast and that’s on me.”
Cincinnati played a second straight game without top running back Giovani Bernard, out with injury. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill was not as spectacular as he was in last week’s spot start, and managed 55 yards on the ground.