The Playbook: Previewing Bears-Packers, Saints-Jets and more Week 9 games
Chicago (4-3) at Green Bay (5-2) — Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: How much introduction does this game really need? Everyone’s aware of the storied history in arguably the NFL’s greatest rivalry — counting the postseason, the Bears and Packers have met 188 times, with the Bears sporting a 92-88-6 edge.
It’s a “Throw out the records” sort of rivalry … or, at least, the Bears hope it is this season. Chicago (4-3) enters the Monday night clash a game back of Green Bay (5-2) in the NFC North, but the Bears again will be without starting QB Jay Cutler, as he continues to nurse a groin injury. Veteran backup Josh McCown filled in admirably during a loss at Washington two weeks ago, throwing for 204 yards and a TD in relief of Cutler.
That result, though, also served as the latest reminder that Chicago’s defense is hardly the fear-inducing unit of years past. The Redskins hung 45 on the Bears that afternoon, the fourth time a team scored 30 or more points (and second time over 40) against Chicago in seven games this season.
The Packers offense is not quite what a struggling defense wants to see. Through all its injuries at receiver and tight end, Green Bay has continued to light up the scoreboard behind an increasingly MVP-worthy effort from QB Aaron Rodgers. He ripped the Vikings defense his last time out and has gone 75 pass attempts — two-plus games — without an interception.
Chicago must slow a stout Green Bay run game, as well. Led by rookie Eddie Lacy, the Packers have hit the century mark on the ground in six straight games, including a 182-yard effort at Minnesota.
The best hope for the visiting Bears may be to grind out a victory on the legs of Matt Forte, who has 533 yards rushing of his own. He’ll need to do better than the 60 yards gained against Green Bay by Adrian Peterson, whose efforts were stunted by shoddy work at QB and questionable play calling.
The Packers have taken their last six games against the Bears, including a playoff win in January 2011. If they push that streak to seven, Chicago will have a long way back into the NFC North race. – Chris Burke
New Orleans (6-1) at NY Jets (4-4) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: This matchup looks a lot better for New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan than it does for twin brother Rex, the Jets’ head coach. While the Saints’ new multiple and diverse defense has all it takes to confuse rookie quarterback Geno Smith into making counterproductive reads and throws, the Jets secondary — fresh off its embarrassment at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals’ passing offense last Sunday — seem singularly ill-equipped to deal with the kind of firepower Drew Brees can dispense.
Rex Ryan said that the Bengals loss was so bad, he told his players to skip watching the tape and just move on to the next opponent. However, what the Saints do is nightmare fuel for any struggling defense — vertical concepts, dizzying receiver distribution and all sorts of routes and formations.
“It’s a team that really pushes the ball vertically on you probably more so than anybody,” Rex said of the Saints this week. “Quite honestly, they’re going to watch that tape from what happened last week, [and] I wouldn’t be surprised if Drew Brees and Co. aren’t on the flight here early to make sure they got here. We have to play a heck of a lot better and we will.”
The Jets are the fifth team since the NFL started the 16-game schedule in 1978 to alternate wins and losses in their first four games, which means that their 4-4 record is less a tribute to stability and more an indication of wild variance.
The Saints, meanwhile, are one Tom Brady touchdown pass away from an undefeated record. No surprise that their offense is explosive, but the real improvement has been on defense. Rob Ryan took over a Steve Spagnuolo-led bunch that set league records for futility, and has it playing at a Super Bowl level. Only the Patriots have scored more than 18 points on New Orleans, and Cameron Jordan must be mentioned along with J.J. Watt and the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson as the best 3-4 ends in the game. The Jets are still trying to figure out their offensive M.O., and Smith has been frustratingly game-to-game. All signs point to Rob having bragging rights at the Ryan family holiday table after this one. – Doug Farrar
Pittsburgh (2-5) at New England (6-2) — 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Though the Patriots and Steelers have not met in the postseason since the 2004 season’s AFC title game, they have developed this matchup into one of the NFL’s must-see rivalries. That is, at least, in a normal year.
This season has hardly been normal. And that is doubly true for the Steelers, who followed up another offseason of salary cap misery with a 2-5 start. They reside in fourth place in the AFC North, and it would be difficult to argue they don’t belong there. (Oh, and they were lapped in their own city by the Pirates.)
Tom Brady’s Patriots offense, outside of a Week 2 win over the Jets and a rainy Week 5 loss in Cincinnati, has found ways to put up points — New England is averaging 28 points per game over the past three weeks. Rob Gronkowski’s long-awaited return has upped the ante for that unit, too. Though he had just two receptions last week, Brady targeted him a whopping 17 times in the Patriots’ previous outing.
For all its troubles elsewhere, Pittsburgh is second against the pass in the NFL, so Brady and his possibly injured throwing hand face another tough assignment.
Of course, it may not take all that many points to take down the Steelers, who have topped the 20-point mark just twice in seven games. They shot themselves in the foot again last weekend in Oakland, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a pair of interceptions in Raiders territory and kicker Shaun Suisham shanking two short field goals.
Roethlisberger dubbed this weekend’s trip to Foxboro a “must-win” for his struggling team. He may be right, as a loss could drop the Steelers three games back of an AFC wild-card spot, with a tricky second half ahead.
The stakes are lower for New England, which has opened a two-game lead in the AFC East. Yet, with their bye week forthcoming in Week 10, the Patriots would love to tack on win No. 7, both to maintain their cushion on the second-place Jets and to try to keep pace with Cincinnati, Indianapolis and the other teams fighting for a bye in the playoffs. (The AFC West champ, be it Kansas City or Denver, probably will be in line for one of those two coveted spots.)
Pittsburgh’s last trip to New England came back in 2008: a 33-10 win over the Brady-less Pats. A repeat of that dominant showing is unlikely, though little about this season has gone to script so far. – CB
Indianapolis (5-2) at Houston (2-5) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Before the season started, this game was expected to help decide the pecking order in the AFC South. But the Texans have all but fallen apart, especially on offense, and their 2-5 record can only be seen as a severe disappointment. For the second straight game and with a bye week to consider it, head coach Gary Kubiak will start second-year undrafted free-agent quarterback Case Keenum over incumbent Matt Schaub. Kubiak made it clear this week that the decision had nothing to do with Schaub’s injured ankle.
“Matt’s fine and it’s just the decision I made based on what I saw take place last week with Case and him taking advantage of an opportunity and I want to see him move forward,” Kubiak said on Monday after reviewing Keenum’s surprising performance against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Colts have a clear division lead at 5-2, but their future became far more murky when Reggie Wayne tore his right ACL against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 20. Wayne has been Andrew Luck’s primary target by far through Luck’s first two seasons, and though Indianapolis’ defense has been a pleasant surprise, it’s tough to know what the offense will look like with a group of young but inconsistent receivers, a struggling running game and an offensive line that does not inspire hope. Head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson decided to stick with the players they had, as opposed to scanning the wires and seeing who might replace Wayne from outside.
“You’re going to exhaust all resources, turn all stones and see if there’s somebody, but again, you got to bring somebody in a short period of time and teach them the terminology and the system and all that stuff,” Pagano said this week.
“These guys are more than capable. They’ve been here. We know what they are. They know our system. That’s why we decided just to stand pat.”
That decision will define the Colts’ season, for better or worse. Houston’s season is basically decided, but the Colts have a lot to play for here, and with a looking glass that is less than clear. – DF