Taking a first glance at the week nine slate of games and it doesn’t look great on paper. However, the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans are two teams most associate with stifling defenses and offenses than can struggle, particularly in the red zone, so when they met last Sunday night, most people — myself included — would have expected it to be a low-scoring defensive display.
Instead, the pair combined for early 80 points as the Seahawks managed a high-octane 41-38 win. To put that points total in context, the Raiders, Bucs and Steelers — three of most touted offenses coming into this year — managed just 37 between them.
There were other fascinating games on Sunday too with the Colts and Browns at least acting like NFL franchises again and six of the 12 match-ups finishing with one score between the teams.
We’ve already started to see a few teams — the Eagles, Patriots, Chiefs and Steelers — separating themselves from the pack while others — the Raiders, Bucs and Lions — continue to disappoint from pre-season expectations and week nine will provide some more valuable clues to how the season will shape up.
Atlanta Falcons (4-3) @ Carolina Panthers (5-3) – 6pm
Points differential is not the be-all and end-all but it does give NFL fans an indication of what their team’s record should be compared to what it actually is. Take the Falcons and Panthers in the NFL South as the perfect example. Last year’s Super Bowl losers have a winning record (4-3) despite scoring just one more point than they’ve conceded. The Panthers aren’t much better, sitting 5-3 despite outscoring opponents by just less than a point per game this season.
In both cases, you would expect both teams to have records below .500, especially when you consider a team like the Texans has a points differential of +27 and a losing record.
Of course, neither team will actually care what their points differential is once they make the postseason but victory in this game will be crucial, especially with the Saints hosting NFC South bottom-dwellers Tampa Bay in a match that could strengthen their grip of a playoff spot.
The weather played a significant part, of course, but Atlanta will want to be more sure-handed than they were last week against the Jets when Matt Ryan and centre Alex Mack fumbled four snap exchanges — losing two — before rightly deciding to switch to shotgun down the stretch. The Falcons can also count themselves lucky that ball-handling errors from New York — and, crucially, a Jeremy Kerley muffed punt — kept them in the game.
The Panthers play their second divisional game in as many weeks and are an entirely different proposition on defense with linebacker Luke Kuechly on the field. Carolina is now 5-5 in the 10 games he has missed — and 20-9 in the ones he has not– according to ESPN Stats & Info. Last weekend, as they kept the Bucs to just three points, the 26-year-old had six tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception on his return from yet another concussion. However, given he has now missed double digit games in three seasons, just how long he continues to play football for, remains to be seen.
I’m edging towards Carolina (-2) in this game but it’s unlikely I’ll be backing them. Of much more interest is the points total of 43.5. With the Panthers averaging a miserly 14.3 points per game over their last three and Atlanta just 16.3, I just don’t see how they get to the total, especially with both offenses consistently underperforming this season, so I’ll be taking the under.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-4) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3) – 6pm
Coming into this season, it felt like we’d read this Jacksonville Jaguars story before. The Floridians spend big in free agency only to find that players were more interested in cashing pay cheques that sacking quarterbacks. And then they opened the season by putting both Texans quarterbacks on their backside a combined 10 times and haven’t really looked back. Quite simply, Jacksonville has the best pass defense in football and it’s not even close.
Calais Campbell and AJ Bouye have come in and made instant impacts alongside players like Malik Jackson, Myles Jack, Telvin Smith and Jalen Ramsey; with the latter making a serious case for himself as the best young defensive back in football right now. That said, for as good as they are with the ball in the air — the best in the league — the Jags are the worst ground defense in the NFL according to Football Outsiders DVOA. That’s difficult to reconcile though and a big part of the reason they traded for Marcell Dareus from the Bills.
Whatever your thoughts on Joe Mixon — and Le’Veon Bell certainly has a few — the rookie running back has not had the impact for the Cincinnati Bengals this year that many expected. This is a guy who a lot of pundits felt was a top-five draft pick but whose stock fell following an assault on a woman during his time in college with Oklahoma. And yet he’s only managing 36 yards per game on the ground and a further 27 in the receiving game, way below expectations. That he’s already calling out coaching staff and team-mates, is not a good sign.
Mind you, it’s not like the Bengals offense has exactly been firing on all cylinders this season. One thing that’s been really interesting is that last year’s Bengals had the 8th fastest pace of play in the game at 26 seconds per play but, in 2015, the best season of Andy Dalton’s career, the Bengals were ranked 29th in terms of pace of with roughly 29 seconds per play. In 2017, the offense has reverted to its 2015 form, but has not had the same red zone success as two years ago.
When the Jags win, they win well. Indeed, each of their four victories have come by an average of 26.75 points and a minimum of 21 points.
In short, if you think they’ll win, then the -4.5 line shouldn’t put you off and, for me, it doesn’t. The points total of 39.5 seems a little low for me too, so I’ll be taking the over in what could be a Jacksonville rout.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-2) @ Dallas Cowboys (4-3) – 9.25pm
It’s hard to know how impressive Dallas have been over the past two weeks when you consider they beat the worst team in the NFC, and then overcame a Washington side missing three starters from their offensive line. That Washington had planned to use two and three tight end sets, only to watch Niles Paul (concussion) and Jordan Reed (hamstring) leave the game with injury, only compounds the doubt surrounding America’s Team.
That said, you can only beat what’s in front of you and the Cowboys have certainly bounced back from the 2-3 hole they found themselves in after week 5. However, it will be a worry that their once dominant offensive line continues to misfire, with Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and Jonathan Cooper all flagged for holding against Washington. On the opposite side, however, things seem to be clicking for a defensive line that recorded four sacks and six tackles for loss.
For the Chiefs, it was a return to winning ways against the Broncos though their offense was made to look terrible for large stages of the game. Alex Smith had his first sub-50% completion rate since week 11 of 2013 while Kareem Hunt had just 46 rushing yards on 20 attempts, his worst performance of the season.
However, the Kansas City defense, which has looked as if it was missing Eric Berry all season, stood firm and forced the Denver offense to turn the ball over five times including a sack fumble and three interceptions as they made the night hell for Trevor Siemian. Though, it’s worth asking, how much of that was down to good defense or terrible offense from the Broncos quarterback?
Dallas goes into this game as one-point favourites and, while I’m not convinced by either side, the expected absence of Zeke Elliott through suspension just gives the Chiefs the edge for me.