NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (3-1) AT CLEVELAND BROWNS (0-4)
SERIES HISTORY: 23rd regular-season meeting. Browns lead the all-time series 12-10. Bill Belichick has seen both sides of this series, first leading the Browns to a 4-2 mark against the Patriots, including a Cleveland playoff win over Bill Parcells‘ New England squad after the 1994 season. Belichick has a 5-2 mark for the Patriots against his former squad, with both losses coming in trips to the Dawg Pound. The Browns 34-14 win in 2010 under Eric Mangini was a huge upset, and Cleveland came up just short of a surprise victory in the Patriots 27-26 win in Foxborough in the most recent meeting in 2013.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The focus of NFL followers will be on Patriots QB Tom Brady in his return from four-game banishment over the over-inflated, deflate-gate debacle. There are murmurs that Brady will take out his frustrations on opponents. Really? Ya mean he will play better as a 38-year old who sat out a quarter of the season? Truth is, the Pats should be able to beat the Browns regardless of who is at quarterback.
That said, coach Hue Jackson has the Browns playing competitive football and this game is as big on the radar on an entire roster of players seeking validation as it is for Brady coming back. The Browns can’t come up with coverage disguises Brady hasn’t seen, so they must win the line of scrimmage to pull an upset. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton will keep a rotation going to keep his line fresh.
The Browns’ pass protection improved over the last two weeks. That might allow rookie QB Cody Kessler to throw deep — something he did not do against the Redskins.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Browns NT Danny Shelton vs. Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount. Big, bad Blount trails only the Browns’ Isaiah Crowell among AFC rushers. Shelton can play a significant role in keeping his teammate on top even if he doesn’t pile up tackles. Shelton will have a successful day if he clears blockers so the linebackers can make the tackles.
–Browns WR Terrelle Pryor vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. Improbable highlight matchup of one-time starting NFL quarterback vs. former undrafted free agent who starred as rookie in Super Bowl. Pryor earned the respect of teams around the league in just his first full year as a wide receiver. This time he must beat Butler with his speed down the right side. Pryor at 6-foot-4 has a five-inch height advantage, but Butler, in his fifth season, has experience on his side. Butler has 19 passes defensed since 2015, most on team.
FAST FACTS: Pats QB Brady is 5-1 in career starts vs. Browns; he passed for 418 yards in the most recent meeting. … Pats RB LeGarrette Blount won AFC Offensive Player of Month for September. He ranks third in the NFL with 352 rush yards, and he is tied for third with four rushing TDs. … Browns RB Isiah Crowell ranks second in the NFL with 386 rushing yards. He ran for 331 yards (110.3 per game) and three TDs in his past three at home.
PREDICTION: It would make the Browns’ season to get an upset while the nation is watching the return of Tom Brady. That would make a great story after the game, but there is no realistic reason to predict that before they play.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 35-21
TENNESSEE TITANS (1-3) AT MIAMI DOLPHINS (1-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. TV — CBS, Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Miami leads, 19-5. Miami hammered the Titans, 38-10, last seson. The game was an emotional boost for Miami as interim coach Dan Campbell, in his first game taking over for fired Joe Philbin, rallied the team with his hard-as-nails approach to football. The Dolphins showed swag for the first time in a long time.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Hurricane Matthew, which could make landfall in South Florida late Thursday night, could impact the game in some way, whether a change in practice, venue or time. The NFL is monitoring the situation and, so far, there are no plans to move or reschedule the game.
“Our biggest thing is just making sure everybody’s being smart,” Miami coach Adam Gase said. “We want the safety of our players and our staff and the people in our building to make sure that everybody is doing the right thing, making sure they’re putting themselves in a position to where we get everybody back safe and sound. The Dolphins planned on giving players the day off Thursday even before the hurricane threat.”
The Dolphins offense, meanwhile, is little more than a light breeze. Miami, tied for 29th in rushing yards per game (77.8), must get its running game going. It appears Arian Foster (hamstring) will miss his third consecutive game so the duties will be left to the unproven foursome of Kenyan Drake, Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams and Isaiah Pead in some form or fashion.
The Dolphins remain unbalanced offensively with 138 passes compared to 74 rushing attempts, but with center Mike Pouncey (hip) back in the lineup they should help. Better balance on the offensive attack figures to make Miami better at third down conversions (26.7 percent, last in the NFL), too.
Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill was sacked five times in the team’s Week 4 loss to Cincinnati. Since his debut in 2012, Tannehill was sacked five or more time in 13 games, the most of any quarterback in the league.
Last week, the Titans fell to the Texans, 27-20, after yielding 359 total net yards to Houston at NRG Stadium (244 in the air and 115 on the ground). Tennessee has now allowed 300 or more yards in a franchise-record tying 13 straight games, and has gone 3-10 in those games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Dolphins’ third-down offense vs. Titans’ defense. Miami has blamed many of its offensive woes on its inability to convert third downs (26.7 percent, last in NFL). The Dolphins struggle on pass protection (11 sacks allowed, tied for 7th-worst) and on the ground (77.8 yards per game, 29th in NFL). That means they must overcome their patterns to show progress.
–Dolphins’ pass rush vs. Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota. Miami’s 10 sacks are tied for ninth in the NFL. But the pass rush hasn’t yet taken over a game. DEs Cam Wake (1.0 sack) and Mario Williams (1.0 sack) haven’t yet flexed their muscle. DT Ndamukong Suh (1.5 sacks) has been impressive but more against the run than the pass. Miami’s blitz packages haven’t yet been effective as many teams have utilized three-step drops to minimize the pass rush risk. Miami must find a way to make its best asset a factor.
FAST FACTS: Titans RB DeMarco Murray leads Tennessee with 19 receptions. He is the only running back who leads his team in receptions this season, and he could become the first Titan to do so since Chris Johnson (44) in 2010. … Miami has been outscored 59-23 in the first half of its four games this season and trailed at halftime in each game.
PREDICTION: In a game between two teams that lose more than their share, not sure if we are picking who we expect to win or who we expect to lose.
OUR PICK: Titans, 21-17
NEW YORK JETS (1-3) AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS (3-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh. TV — CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn
SERIES HISTORY: 23rd regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 17-5. Steelers are 9-1 at home against the Jets, including a 24-19 victory in the 2011 AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field. The Jets’ only victory in Pittsburgh came one month before that title game on Dec. 19, 2010.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has tossed nine interceptions over the past two games, and that was despite being very cautious at the outset of last week’s game against the Steelers. While the Jets need Fitzpatrick to reign in the turnovers, they also can’t afford for him to be timid in pulling the trigger. Pittsburgh enters with the fourth-ranked defense while giving up an average of 316.5 passing yards per game, and Fitzpatrick will have to keep pace with the Steelers’ high octane offense. Opponents are averaging 4.0 yards per carry against Pittsburgh, but the Jets’ ability to remain competitive lies directly with Fitzpatrick moving the ball through the air while avoiding picks. And he continues to work against a stacked deck with wide receivers Eric Decker and Jalin Marshall still sitting out practice midweek due to shoulder injuries.
Just as concerning to the Jets is their secondary, which continues to suffer communication and assignment breakdowns, with several receivers roaming free downfield against Seattle. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has already thrown 11 touchdown passes and will pick apart the Jets’ secondary if given the time, especially with cornerback Darrelle Revis (hamstring) questionable. That puts a big onus on New York’s defensive line to dominate the trenches. The Steelers have struggled to run theball at times this season, although Le’Veon Bell is back from suspension and on fresh legs. The Jets enter with the league’s second-best run defense and must be able to get after Big Ben on long passing downs.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Steelers OLBs Arthur Moats/Jarvis Jones vs. Jets RB Matt Forte: Forte leads the Jets with 288 yards on 81 carries, but his value is just as important in the passing game as he has teamed with backup Bilal Powell for 26 receptions for 186 yards. They are important safety nets for Fitzpatrick and can help serve to slow down the Steelers’ pressure schemes that were so effective in last week’s blowout of Kansas City. Jones is questionable with an ankle injury.
–Steelers LG B.J. Finney vs. Jets NT Steve McClendon: Finney is expected to get his second consecutive start with Ramon Foster still recovering from a chest injury. The former undrafted rookie and practice squad member played solidly against Kansas City last week. McClendon signed with the Jets this offseason after spending his first six seasons with the Steelers. He has a pair of sacks through four games and will team with RDE Muhammad Wilkerson in attempting to exploit Finney’s inexperience.
FAST FACTS: Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is on pace to throw 40 interceptions for the season. The NFL single-season record is 42, set by George Blanda in 1962. … Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 18 touchdown passes in his past five home games and aims for his sixth consecutive home game with at least three touchdown passes. Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Blanda and Tom Brady are the only quarterbacks to throw five-plus touchdown passes at least five times in a career.
PREDICTION: Ben Roethlisberger has been nearly unstoppable in his past six home games, and this sets up as a scary matchup for the Jets’ 27th-ranked pass defense that could be minus Darrelle Revis. And Ryan Fitzpatrick being asked to go punch for punch in a shootout is a dangerous concept right now.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 34-23
BUFFALO BILLS (2-2) AT LOS ANGELES RAMS (3-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. TV — CBS, Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Scott Kaplan
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Bills lead series 6-5. Buffalo has not played the Rams in Los Angeles since 1983, and that game was played at Anaheim Stadium, a 41-17 Rams victory. The Bills’ last visit to the Coliseum was for a 1992 game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
KEYS TO THE GAME: New Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn faces his stiffest test to date in devising ways to protect QB Tyrod Taylor from the Rams’ deep and aggressive front four. The first critical component is RB LeSean McCoy having early success on the ground and contributing in the screen game to take some of the bite out of that pass rush. Second is taking advantage of his legs, as Taylor is second on the Bills with 140 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. His ability to get to the edge and/or keep plays alive is an X-factor. WR Robert Woods and TE Charles Clay combined for 12 receptions last week with Sammy Watkins sidelined. They must continue to produce as the Rams’ 23rd-ranked secondary will give up yards … when the quarterback has time.
QB Case Keenum has steadied the Rams’ offense, but it’s hardly prolific. Teams are stacking the box to contain RB Todd Gurley and make Keenum move the ball with his arm. WR Tavon Austin is dangerous with the ball in his hands, but most of his touches come near the line of scrimmage, while Keenum continues to work with bigger bodies in Kenny Britt and Brian Quick downfield. The Bills have rebounded from an ugly loss to the Jets to play improved defense, including shutting out rookie QB Jacoby Brissett and the Patriots last week. CBs Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby have shown good form of late and will look to jump on a few of Keenum’s heavy diet of slant passes.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Bills interior line vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald. Donald has ascended to the very top of the best defensive player conversation, especially now that Houston’s JJ Watt is likely done for the season. He is a disruptive force in the middle against both the run and the pass, and Bills C Eric Wood and OGs John Miller and Richie Incognito will have to find a way to keep him out of the backfield. The good news for the Bills is that RB LeSean McCoy is adept at cutting and bouncing runs to the outside, so perhaps he’ll be able to avoid Donald should he gain penetration.
–Bills WLB Preston Brown vs. Rams RB Todd Gurley. Despite his 2.6-yard average per carry, everyone recognizes Gurley’s importance to the Rams’ offense. Understated, however, has been Brown’s contribution to Buffalo’s defensive improvement. His 52 tackles is the most by a player through the first four weeks of a season since Washington’s London Fletcher in 2009, and he was recognized as the AFC Defensive Player of the Month after getting in on a career-high 18 tackles against New England last week.
FAST FACTS: The Bills have lost six consecutive games on the West Coast dating back to 2004, when they defeated San Francisco and Seattle. … Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor is one of two NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating of 95.0 or higher (96.6) and at least 700 rushing yards (708) since the start of the 2015 season. … Rams QB Case Keenum has won five of his past seven starts.
PREDICTION: The Bills haven’t won on the West Coast in 12 years. Not only is it a long haul, but the Rams sport the league’s most physical defense, with the wild card in a close game being Los Angeles’ excellent special teams units.
OUR PICK: Rams, 16-13