The Playbook: Previewing Bengals-Jets, Lions-Cowboys, more Week 8 games
NY Jets (4-3) at Cincinnati (5-2) — 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Few are surprised by the Bengals’ current 5-2 mark, which puts them at the top of the AFC North. However, this Jets team, which currently sits at 4-3 with a shot to claim the AFC East if it keeps playing reasonably well, has been a relative shock to most observers. A Rex Ryan-led team many thought would compete for the first pick in the 2014 draft has stayed afloat with a stifling front seven, decent enough secondary play and a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith who has wrapped enough efficiency around his understandable first-year yips to give the franchise hope at the most important position.
The Bengals are getting the most from their young quarterback as well — third-year man Andy Dalton has thrown for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns in two games in a row for the second time in his career. Dalton is athletically limited at best, and his arm talent is not elite, but offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is making the most of him. Dalton currently ranks 10th in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted quarterback rankings.
“You never quiet the critics as a quarterback. Ever,” Gruden said of Dalton this week, after Dalton helped lift his team over the Detroit Lions last Sunday. “You just have to continue to produce and be consistent at the position. Ultimately you want to win the final game and maybe someday [Dalton's naysayers] can stop writing that he can’t throw far enough.”
If Dalton thought that he faced a stout defensive front in the game against Detroit, he hasn’t seen anything yet. The Jets are as talented and multiple as any other NFL team when it comes to rushing the passer and stopping the run, and rookie Sheldon Richardson has been especially powerful.
It’s an intriguing battle between two teams built fairly similarly — both want to protect the quarterback with the run game and play great defense. The difference could be in which secondary steps up — Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie has not been happy with his own play this year, and the Bengals lost Leon Hall for the season in the Lions game with a torn Achilles tendon. That will put Pacman Jones outside opposite Terence Newman, and you can expect the Jets to see if they can exploit that imbalance. – Doug Farrar
Dallas (4-3) at Detroit (4-3) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Cowboys would love to claim their fifth win Sunday. The Lions need their fifth win.
Dallas has taken control of the NFC East, courtesy of wins over Washington and Philadelphia on successive Sundays. Another victory this week in the Motor City not only would give America’s Team a firmer stranglehold on the division, but also would deal a blow to an NFC wild-card contender.
And it’s a blow the Lions can ill-afford after letting one slip away against the Bengals. The Lions’ 27-24 home loss to Cincinnati — a game in which they had multiple opportunities to take a fourth-quarter lead — dropped them behind Green Bay in the NFC North and threatened to put a real damper on their postseason dreams. After this game, the Lions have their bye followed by road trips to Chicago and Pittsburgh. They’d prefer not to embark on that stretch as losers of three of four.
The offenses could rule the roost in this one. Dallas boasts the NFL’s No. 3 scoring offense and expects to get running back DeMarco Murray back in the lineup. And Detroit, of course, features that potent Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson-Reggie Bush trio with some emerging complementary pieces like tight end Joseph Fauria.
Both teams have been rather horrid defending the pass, too. Even though they held the Eagles under 200 yards through the air last week, the Cowboys sit 30th in that category; the Lions are 28th and served up 364 yards passing to Cincinnati last week, an effort that led Detroit’s staff to briefly bench No. 1 corner Chris Houston for his abysmal effort.
This matchup may come down to what happens in the trenches when Detroit’s offense is on the field. The Cowboys have received stalwart efforts from defensive end George Selvie and tackle Jason Hatcher, but they’ll be without star end DeMarcus Ware. It’s unclear exactly who will block the Cowboys’ edge rushers — all three of Detroit’s tackles (Riley Reiff, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard) are hurting, and the team just signed veteran stopgap Barry Richardson this week.
Given how the NFC has been set up through seven weeks, this could be an opening-round playoff preview. But both teams, and especially Detroit, have a lot of work to do before claiming spots in the postseason. – Chris Burke
Green Bay (4-2) at Minnesota (1-5) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Apparently, Josh Freeman suffered a concussion (or concussion-like symptoms) in his nightmare game against the New York Giants on Monday night but didn’t report anything until Tuesday. Now that the Vikings know, they’re preparing for this game with Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback. It puts the team back at square one for the season and with the guy they clearly don’t want in the long term. Ponder is trying to salvage any remnants of a career that began when he was overdrafted in 2011; he has fallen back to earth since.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” Ponder said this week. “Obviously, the starting job swung away from me. It swings back, and it’s time to grab a hold of it and not let it swing away from me again.”
No matter who their quarterback may be, the Vikings need to feed the ball to Adrian Peterson more often. This would seem to be crushingly obvious advice, but Peterson has seen just 23 carries total in his last two games. The Packers rank third in Football Outsiders’ defensive metrics against the run and 25th against the pass, but no matter … if the Vikings don’t establish the run and use play-action off that threat, they have no chance. That said, Ponder played perhaps his best NFL game last time he faced the Packers. In the 2012 regular-season finale, he completed 16-of-28 passes for 234 yards for three touchdowns and no picks in a 37-34 win that put the Vikings in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers’ targets keep dwindling. The Pack lost receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones two weeks ago and tight end Jermichael Finley to a frightening spinal injury against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. Finley’s timeline for return is unknown — he may wind up on injured reserve. The Packers haven’t ruled Jones out just yet, but they’re certainly being prudent with everyone after what happened to Finley, who also suffered a serious concussion a month ago.
“When you come back, you want to make sure you’re at your best,” Jones recently said. “You don’t want to re-aggravate an injury and now you’re out longer. So, you want to come back at the right time, when you feel healthy.”
In the meantime, Rodgers still has Jordy Nelson, and that combination has been the league’s most productive this season. Rodgers has targeted Nelson 45 times for 32 catches, 526 yards, five touchdowns and a 137.8 quarterback rating. No matter who is in or out for Green Bay, Minnesota’s young secondary will struggle to contain that passing attack if Rodgers is on point. – DF
NY Giants (1-6) at Philadelphia (3-4) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: It took the Giants until Week 7 to claim their first win of the season. If they grab No. 2 on Sunday, they’ll put a serious dent in the Eagles’ playoff hopes for 2013.
Philadelphia is coming off its worst performance of the season, at least offensively. With a struggling Nick Foles firing incompletions every which way and backup Matt Barkley tossing three interceptions in limited action, Chip Kelly’s offense mustered all of three points against the Cowboys in a 17-3 loss. All signs point to Michael Vick being back in the starting lineup Sunday after sitting out two-plus games with a hamstring injury.
Vick should find some open space against the Giants’ 31st-ranked defense, though Big Blue held Josh Freeman’s Vikings scoreless last Monday (Minnesota’s points came on an 86-yard punt return). Vick threw for 105 yards and rushed for another 79 in the Week 5 matchup between these two teams before Foles relieved him and led a 36-21 victory.
Eli Manning fired three interceptions in that game, part of a 15-interceptions-in-six-games stretch that fueled New York’s 0-6 start. He did, however, manage to avoid a turnover against the Vikings, his first error-free showing of 2013.
While the Eagles have waited to officially deem Vick ready to roll Sunday, the Giants have their own injury woes, most notably at running back. With David Wilson and Brandon Jacobs both out of the lineup in Week 7, New York turned to 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Cox and journeyman Peyton Hillis to handle the load. Hillis did score, but that duo averaged only a little more than 2.0 yards per carry.
One very positive sign for the Giants last week: Jason Pierre-Paul appeared to be inching closer to 100 percent. He had been struggling since offseason back surgery, then missed several practices leading up to that game against Minnesota with an illness.
The Giants are the first team to face the Eagles twice this season, meaning their defense will be the first to see Kelly’s unique offense multiple times. Will that help the Giants slam the door or will Kelly be ready with adjustments? – CB