Buffalo Bills (4-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-5-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati. TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Chris Spielman, Holly Sonders.
SERIES HISTORY: 30th meeting. Buffalo leads 15-14, including a streak of 10 straight wins over the Bengals before 2011. Cincinnati defeated the Bills 34-21 last season in Buffalo. Both Bengals Super Bowl runs in 1981 and 1988 included playoff wins over the Bills.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bengals were a popular pick against the New York Giantson Monday because they were the more desperate team. Following a 21-20 loss that dropped them to 3-5-1, desperation has reached new heights for the Bengals, who will be playing at Paul Brown Stadium for the first time in almost a month.
It’s a common theme each week, but the Bengals’ offensive line must play better — and this week it must do so against a Buffalo defense that leads the NFL in sacks. Rex Ryan‘s Bills will take some chances. If the Bengals can protect QB Andy Dalton, big plays could be available.
The Bills showed some real progress in the passing game in their 31-25 loss at Seattle as Tyrod Taylor attacked down the field against one of the NFL’s best defenses. He’ll need to continue doing that; but, in this game, the Bills would like to take advantage of a Bengals rush defense that has struggled all year. They rank 26th in yards per attempt and allowed the Giants — the second-worst running team in the league — to pile up 122 yards. The Bills are still second in the NFL at 155 rushing yards per game, LeSean McCoy‘s hamstring has healed and he’s ready to go for the stretch run. One key, though, will be the middle of the line as C Eric Wood is out for the year; Ryan Groy is a big drop-off, so Bengals NT Domata Peko and DT Geno Atkins could create some problems.
The Bills have given up big plays in the passing game — seven of 50 yards or more in the first nine games. WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert are going to be difficult matchups. CBs Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby have not held up well in man coverage and Green likely will have an advantage no matter which side he lines up on.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Bills CBs Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. Both corners have been inconsistent, not playing to the level they were at in 2015 when Rex Ryan said they were the best corner duo in the league. Darby may not start — Corey White is getting reps this week — but no matter which side Green goes to, he’s going to be a handful for the Bills, who are also struggling at safety. If Gilmore, Darby or White can’t hold up, Green could have a very big day.
–Bills RB LeSean McCoy vs. Bengals linebackers. The Bengals have not been very good against the run this season, ranking 25th in yards per attempt. The Bills, as always, must control the ball on the ground, and McCoy — now with an extra week to rest his injured hamstring — should be fully healthy and able to resume his Pro Bowl play. One problem the Bills will encounter, though, is that center Eric Wood is out for the year, so there will be a void in the middle of the league’s second-ranked rushing game.
PREDICTION: The Bengals are a physically talented team, especially on defense, but they are coming off a tough “MNF” loss at the New York Giants and the Bills had a bye week to heal after their loss in Seattle.
OUR PICK: Bills, 32-21.
Miami Dolphins (5-4) at Los Angeles Rams (4-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. TV: FOX, Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale.
SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Dolphins lead series, 12-2. The last time the Dolphins played the Rams at the Coliseum was in 1971 — Bob Griese completed 13 of 19 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Rams QB Jared Goff will finally make his NFL debut. The Rams intend to play Goff as the starter the rest of the year.
The Rams insist the playbook will not be scaled back now that this year’s first overall draft pick is the starting quarterback. With Goff’s arm strength superior to Case Keenum‘s, expect the offense to expand rather than shrink.
That could mean longer routes and more plays downfield — the upshot being it could open up things more for RB Todd Gurley and WR Tavon Austin. The Rams need that to be the case against an improving Dolphins defense — especially in the red zone, where the Rams have traded too many touchdowns for field goals.
Miami won’t deviate from its physical running game. And, in the last six quarters, the Dolphins are also stopping the run. That’s a formula for success.
Miami, which was 30th in the league in run defense last week at 136.1 yards per game, have limited the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers to 100 yards on 33 carries in the last game and a half.
Stopping the run — Gurley this week — allows the Dolphins to get quarterbacks — Goff this week — into third-and long situations, where Miami can use its ferocious pass rush.
Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Goff.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Rams RB Todd Gurley vs. Miami run defense. This is a key category for a number of reasons — primarily because it seems to be Miami’s kryptonite. The Dolphins are 30th in run defense at 128.8 yards per game, but they seem to be improving — just 100 yards rushing (3.3 per carry) in the last six quarters. Gurley (515 yards, 3.1 yards per carry) is an explosive runner who can exploit the fundamental errors that have plagued the Dolphins all season. If Gurley gets loose, it will be big trouble for Miami. If Gurley is contained, it will be a big success for Miami.
–Rams QB Jared Goff vs. Miami pass rush. DE Cam Wake (seven sacks) and DT Ndamukong Suh (five) get to welcome Goff, the No. 1 pick of the draft, into the NFL as he makes his first start. It will be crucial for Goff to feel comfortable in the pocket, but Wake, Suh and DE Andre Branch (3.5 sacks) will make that very difficult. Their up-field pursuit and ability to collapse the pocket will put immense pressure on Goff.
PREDICTION: While the feature of this game is the unveiling of Goff, the dominant factor could be the defenses and the deciding factor may be the running game. This could be a rude awakening for Goff.
OUR PICK: Dolphins, 21-18.
New England Patriots (7-2) at San Francisco 49ers (1-8)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl.
SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. The 49ers lead the all-time series, 8-4. The last meeting came in New England in December 2012, when Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers took care of business with a 41-34 win. That contest snapped a three-game Patriots winning streak. Tom Brady has never played in his native Bay Area; he missed New England’s 2008 victory at Candlestick Park with a torn ACL. The 49ers dominated New England in the rare interconference battles, winning six straight from 1980 to 1995.
KEYS TO THE GAME: New England’s reputation as a pass-first offense has been well-earned. But the Patriots have balanced things out a bit this season with LeGarrette Blount, who has topped 20 carries five times. With the 49ers allowing 5.1 yards per carry and 180.4 per game, Josh McDaniels certainly will look to give Blount a chance to get things going early.
That will only open things up through the air for Tom Brady, including the possibility that Martellus Bennett will be an even greater focal point with the lung injury to Rob Gronkowski. The play-action game will help out a New England line that has struggled to protect consistently, although San Francisco is in the bottom third of the league in sacks per pass play. If the offensive line plays its role, New England should be able to run and throw efficiently.
Defensively the Patriots are trying to clean up a lot of areas. The initial goal, as always, will be to keep Carlos Hyde and the 49ers’ run game in check. Hyde is getting back to health and averaging just 3.6 yards a carry.
Of course, part of the Patriots’ front seven’s job in both the run and the pass is dealing with Colin Kaepernick‘s ability as a runner. The once-again San Francisco starter is averaging 7.1 yards per carry and has been an active force on the ground since his return to the lineup. That means Rob Ninkovich and the rest of the New England edge players will once again be utilizing a controlled rush, much as they have in recent weeks against Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor.
The New England back end may have the most to prove, even against a suspect passing attack. The Patriots have played a lot of soft zone coverages of late. There is no reason to believe the approach will be abandoned against Chip Kelly’s unique offense, though Devin McCourty and company will strive for much better execution and communication. The players must play stout up front against Kelly’s various zone reads and unique option looks. In coverage, dealing with Jeremy Kerley in the slot is key, but Torrey Smith remains a dangerous deep threat despite his limited success this fall.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Patriots TE Martellus Bennett vs. 49ers FS Eric Reid. Normally Reid would have to deal with Rob Gronkowski and Bennett, but the former’s injury led to him remaining home. That means Bennett may have an even bigger role on offense, coming off a seven-catch, 102-yard performance. Reid is athletic and has the size to match up with opposing tight ends like Bennett, but Tom Brady has a knack for finding the right matchups and using his versatile weapons.
–Patriots DE Trey Flowers vs. 49ers LT Joe Staley. Staley has been one of the most consistent tackles in the game in his decade in San Francisco. Flowers is coming on strong in his second season, having notched two sacks in each of the last two games. The young player has earned increased reps on the edge, but this matchup with the Pro Bowl veteran Staley will be both a learning experience and an opportunity to once again prove his developing abilities.
PREDICTION: The Patriots were cruising along until they were stonewalled by Seattle last Sunday. They should have a much easier time against this NFC West club, especially with Brady returning home for the first time in his career.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 31-13.