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NFL Week 9 game picks: Patriots, Broncos roll on; Panthers fall

We're halfway home ... and, thankfully, alllmost done with the bye weeks.

Six -- count 'em -- six teams are off this week, which will at least make the standings easier to read. Unless you're used to reading baseball standings and seeing the Baltimore Orioles 30.5 games back. Speaking of Baltimore, the Ravens are one of the teams off this week, along with the Texans, Cardinals, Lions, Seahawks and Chiefs. We still have 13 games on the ledger, however, including some business getting sorted out in the NFC East ...

That's cold, Chris. (But perfect.)

The Eagles travel to Dallas in what amounts to a huge game. Phllly can't afford to drop to 1-3 in the division. Chris' Bears play a rare contest in San Diego on Monday night, which would qualify as a must-win for both teams. And those aren't even the attractive matchups. We also have the Broncos at Colts, Dolphins at Bills and Packers at Panthers. Good stuff. And don't forget, you can drop a line about any of these matchups, and I will answer with football or Star Trek. @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Now, let's get to it!

Elliot Harrison went 9-5 on his predictions for Week 8, giving him a record of 73-46 so far this season. How will he fare in Week 9? His picks are below.

Interesting matchup. Aaron Rodgers, coming off a loss to the Broncos in which he notched a career low -- at least, among games he started and finished standing up -- with 77 passing yards, faces a Panthers defense that is usually stout. However, at the end of Carolina's crazy Monday night win over the Colts, that unit didn't even appear to be as stout as a Lime-A-Rita, much less a Guinness. The Panthers sorely miss Charles Johnson, and they'll have trouble getting after Rodgers if Green Bay goes four wide, utilizing James Jones, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery. Spreading them out, the Packers extinguish the longest active winning streak -- Carolina has won 11 straight regular-season games going back to last season -- in the NFL.

 **Not-so-fun fact:** Cobb, who was supposed to be the WR1 in this offense following 
 Jordy Nelson's preseason knee injury, has just 132 receiving yards and zero touchdowns over his last four games. Maybe that shoulder is still bothering him. 

Wouldn't it be so characteristic of the 2015 season -- during which seemingly anything can happen -- if the Patriots were to fall to the Redskins? No. The Kirk Cousins magic fails to capture the NFL's version of Mordor. Washington might keep it close for three quarters at Gillette, but given that the Redskins' strength is its front seven, this matchup is not ripe for an upset. New England has proven it can win without running ( see: Week 7), and while Tom Brady has been sacked 18 times, it's come in 307 dropbacks.

 **Crazy stat:** New England has won 20 of its last 22 games, playoffs included, outscoring opponents by 14.9 points per game over that span. So much for parity, right? 

How will Marcus Mariota fare in New Orleans -- with his first head coach already having been canned? (Work with me, here -- I'm trying to create drama.) After a miserable showing in Houston (3.6 yards per play), the Titans will attempt to exploit that leaky Rob Ryan defense. Remember, Mariota is coming off a knee injury that kept him out of the past two games, so his usual mobility may not be there to lean on. Cornerback Perrish Cox's return to health is good news for a Tennessee secondary that will find Drew Brees to be a slightly different QB than Brian Hoyer was last week. Saints move to 5-4.

 **Crazy stat:** Whisenhunt was 4-31 over his last 35 games. Interim head coach Mike Mularkey is 16-32 lifetime. Get excited. 

Buffalo scores a defensive touchdown late to seal the deal on a mostly competitive day at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The predicted final score here is not an indictment of Miami interim coach Dan Campbell -- rather, it reflects the expected return of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was having a fine season before missing two games with a knee injury. When blitzed, Taylor has compiled a respectable 97.2 passer rating, while taking off seven times for a whopping 107 yards. With Cameron Wake done for the season, Miami will be forced to bring pressure. As for Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, will those slip screens and crossing routes that failed in New England work in Buffalo?

 **Crazy stat:** Last season, Buffalo 
 led the NFL with 54 sacks. This year, the 
 Bills have all of 11, 
 tied for 29th. Rex Ryan's sweater vest is not getting it done. 

Part of me wants to pick the Rams to pull off the (minor) upset, but that outcome is too difficult to reach. St. Louis should be able to get traction on the Vikings' run defense, which has been so-so thus far this season (ranking 15th in rushing yards allowed and tied for 24th in yards allowed per carry). The real concern for St. Louis -- outside of Todd Gurley's workload -- is this: Will Nick Foles be able to make the Minnesota back seven pay for creeping up to stop the run? Mike Zimmer's squad is ninth against the pass. The only thing the Vikings aren't doing? Picking off the other QBs' throws (four picks, tied for 22nd). I like the home team in this battle of would-be wild-card squads.

 **Historical symmetry:** This one has major playoff implications. Did you know these two teams have met seven times in the postseason, including two NFC Championship Games (1974 and 1976)? Minnesota won both. 

Jacksonville is fresh off a bye, while the Jets are returning home from their 3,000-mile trek to Oakland with a silver-and-black eye. Still, this is not a good matchup for the Jaguars, whose offense has thrived because of their wideouts. Yes, Raiders QB Derek Carr had success against Gang Green last week, but Carr is more consistent than Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, who will find the windows tight against a Jets defense highly motivated to put that poor outing behind them.

 **Relevant stat:** Opposing passers post a 132.5 passer rating when throwing at 
 Jets cornerback 
 Antonio Cromartie. 

Pittsburgh holds on to keep its postseason goals within sight, even if the AFC North title is now out of reach. DeAngelo Williams will see a similar workload to what he got filling in for Le'Veon Bell in Weeks 1 and 2, when the 10th-year pro showed much pop for, well, a 10th-year pro. Williams produced 224 yards from scrimmage and three ground scores total against the Patriots and 49ers. The Raiders' loss here says less about them than it does about a Steelers team rallying to save its season at home.

 **Fun fact:** The 
 Steelers have tackled receivers as soon as they've caught the ball 40 times this season, most in the league. And as maligned as the secondary was last season, Pittsburgh was second in the NFL in that category last year. #tackling 

Big Blue's win one, lose one season continues. Eli Manning might not find the same kind of patchwork back seven in Tampa that he scorched in New Orleans, but the Giants should still scratch out enough offense to take a close game on the road. The Bucs should provide Jameis Winston ample time in the pocket, given the Giants' absentee pass rush. But Winston will have to throw for a lot more than the 177 and 6.1 yards per attempt he managed in Atlanta to keep up in a mini track meet.

 **Fun fact:** The Bucs' last postseason game -- which was also Jon Gruden's -- came at home versus the 
 Giants and 
 Eli Manning in the 2007 playoffs. New York, of course, went on to win the 
 Super Bowl. 

As bad as the 49ers have been, how much of that is attributable to a quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who looked like he was playing the position for the first time recently, and who didn't seem to have the support of the locker room? I see a potential upset in the making here, just because of how poorly the Falcons have been playing. The issue? Well, San Francisco head coach Jim Tomsula is rolling with Blaine Gabbert -- which means we just can't, in good conscience, roll with the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Falcons' Matt Ryan is still gazed upon lovingly as a top-10 quarterback, but the engine on this Atlanta team has been and will continue to be running back Devonta Freeman, particularly against the Niners' 23th-ranked run D.

 **Fantasy note:** Freeman has been 
 *dominant* in fantasy this season -- he's 
 No.1 among RBs and has more than 
 *twice* as many fantasy points as the seventh-best RB. 

Everyone circled this matchup on the calendar two years ago, when it marked Peyton Manning's first game in Indianapolis wearing another uniform. The Colts won that night on the strength of their pass rush. Then, in the 2014 playoffs, Indy's pass coverage won the day in Denver ... ultimately leading, it would seem, to coach John Fox's ouster by the Broncos. Andrew Luck fared OK in that contest. This week, Indy's new face of the organization can't afford to be mediocre against a Denver defense that leads the NFL in points per game allowed, yards per game and sacks. Speaking of faces, we've seen the Peyton face aplenty after horrible throws this season. And then we get the smiling face of 7-0. Make that 8-0.

 **Fun fact:** Only one NFL quarterback has a lower passer rating than Luck's 71.6: 
 Ryan Mallett, who is not currently employed as an NFL quarterback. 

Dallas finally gets a W sans Tony Romo. Why? Because the Cowboys' defense is balling. The Seahawks could barely get any offense going until the final drive last Sunday. Granted, Seattle's offense sucks. Consider that the same Giants attack that put up 40-plus points in New Orleans scored all of one offensive touchdown -- at home -- against Big D's D in Week 7. The return of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain from suspension has bolstered the pass rush and the depth. Now, we should mention that this is the DeMarco Murray Revenge Game. Here it is ... #58yards #getexcited

 **Relevant stat:** For all the 
 Tony Romo haters out there, this Bud's for you: Since he was named the 
 Cowboys' starter, they're 77-48 with him and 6-14 without. Read that again. 

The Bears will be hamstrung offensively, with Jeremy Langford starting at tailback and Alshon Jeffery matched up on Jason Verrett. Throw in Eddie Royal's injury woes, and 20 points feels realistic. San Diego's task this week will be to generate any kind of ground attack. The win Monday night will have to come by way of the Chargers' defense making impact plays. By the way, would you believe the Bolts have scored a mere seven points all year off takeaways? Yep, that's 32nd in the NFL.

 **Historical symmetry:** 
 Philip Rivers is on pace to finish with 486 completions and 5,506 yards. Not only would those set new single-season NFL records, but they would top the all-time career bests of the man he replaced in the QB chair in San Diego. 
 Drew Brees had 468 completions -- the current record -- and 5,476 yards for the 
 Saints in 2011. 


Bengals fans will tell you this game is no gimme. Last year, the Browns dominated Cincinnati at their place, holding Andy Dalton to a low passer rating ... as in, a 2.0. Of course, the 2015 version of the Cincy quarterback is more like Dalton 2.0. Despite a shaky performance in Pittsburgh last week, he is on pace for a career high in passer rating (107.6) and a career low in interceptions (nine). The real question is if the Browns' garbage run D (Cleveland is allowing a league-worst 147 rushing yards per game) can stop Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.

 **Fun fact:** 
 Browns tight end 
 Gary Barnidge has caught 40 passes this season. From 2008 to 2014, he had 44 -- total. 

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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