Everything you need to know as kickoff approaches...
Key game-time decisions
All players questionable unless noted
Bryant has said he expects to play. The wideout was limited Friday. NFL Network's Jane Slater reported Smith isn't expected to play.
Walker returned to practice as a limited participant Friday after missing Wednesday and Thursday. He played through the injury last week.
Washington Redskins: TE Jordan Reed (hamstring), G Brandon Scherff (knee), T Trent Williams (knee), LB Zach Brown (ankle), WR Jamison Crowder (hamstring), G Shawn Lauvao (stinger), C Spencer Long (knee, knee), T Morgan Moses (ankle, ankle), S Montae Nicholson (shoulder), T Ty Nsekhe (core muscle), TE Niles Paul (concussion), WR Brian Quick (concussion)
Reed sat out practice Friday after being limited earlier in the week. Crowder was limited all week. Williams was also limited all week.
Bennett was added this week after being cut by the Packers. He was limited in Friday's practice after passing a physical. It would be a quick turnaround for him to play Sunday night, but he does know the Patriots' offense. Amendola and Gilmore were limited all week. The Patriots ruled out WR Chris Hogan (shoulder), DT Malcom Brown (ankle) and T Marcus Cannon (ankle).
The offensive lineman was limited Thursday and Friday.
Long was limited all week. Trevathan sat out all week.
Quinn sat out all week.
Barksdale sat out Friday after being limited earlier in the week.
Lee was limited in practices Thursday and Friday.
Sanders was full-go Thursday and Friday and should play Sunday night.
Packers at Bears -- 39 degrees, light rain (20 percent chance)
Browns at Lions (indoors) -- 38 degrees, overcast
Steelers at Colts (indoors) -- 42 degrees, light rain
Chargers at Jaguars -- 76 degrees, partly cloudy, winds 11 mph
Saints at Bills -- 33 degrees, overcast
Jets at Buccaneers -- 81 degrees, clear, winds 13 mph
Vikings at Redskins -- 46 degrees, mostly cloudy
Bengals at Titans -- 54 degrees, mostly cloudy
Texans at Rams -- 70 degrees, mostly cloudy
Cowboys at Falcons (indoors) -- 50 degrees, light rain
Giants at 49ers -- 65 degrees, partly cloudy
Patriots at Broncos (SNF) -- 46 degrees, partly cloudy
Dolphins at Panthers (MNF) -- 50 degrees, clear
What to Watch For
Credit the rookies for the Saints' turnaround. It's difficult to imagine any rookie class -- especially one not involving a quarterback -- being as influential on a franchise. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore looks like the second coming of Darrelle Revis, which is astounding for a rookie corner; offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk has stepped up and done a stellar job at both tackle spots; safety Marcus Williams has helped solidify the back end; running back Alvin Kamara is Sean Payton's greatest toy and a mismatch all over the field; and defensive end Trey Hendrickson has become a valuable rotation player with two sacks. One phenomenal draft class changed the entire fortunes of the 2017 Saints. On Sunday versus the Bills, expect it to show out again, especially Kamara. The rookie running back is a matchup nightmare and should be able to replicate the dual-threat success Matt Forte and Bilal Powell had against the Marcell Dareus-less Bills when last we saw Buffalo.
Kelvin Benjamin makes his debut in Buffalo after sitting out last week's loss following the trade from Carolina. How will the big-bodied receiver morph Tyrod Taylor's offense? Buffalo has been getting by with second-fiddle weapons in the passing game and mostly relying on LeSean McCoy in the passing game. In Benjamin, Taylor has a No. 1 target on the outside that can win one-on-one matchups, especially in the red zone. KB figures to see a lot of Lattimore -- who did not play Week 3 when the Saints went against Benjamin's Panthers. The battle between the two physical players should be one of the best matchups of the weekend. Buffalo possibly getting Charles Clay (questionable) back from injury would also be a huge boon for Taylor. The tight end still leads the team in receiving yards despite missing the past three games.
Welp, Mike McCarthy had two weeks to prepare for Detroit's defense last week and showed little new wrinkles outside of a few zone-reads. Now he sends Brett Hundley to face an even better defense in Chicago. The Packers' young quarterback struggles with pressure, immediately staring at the rush and losing open receivers streaking downfield. On Sunday, he faces a Bears defense that ranks 10th in the NFL in sacks and has caused havoc for even veteran quarterbacks this season. We'd expect the Packers to attempt a ground-first approach in Chicago, riding Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery, to take some pressure off Hundley (especially against a Bears team that has offensive problems of its own). The duo didn't have much success when the teams squared off in Lambeau in Week 4, however (77 yards on 18 carries). Don't forget Danny Trevathan's brutal hit on Davante Adams took place in that last meeting. If the linebacker plays (questionable, calf), will there be any residual angst left over between the division rivals?
The Packers' Week 4 drumming of the Bears birthed the Mitchell Trubisky-era. Chicago has kept the rookie in 45 rolls of bubble wrap since making him the starter. Will they open their new toy before Christmas? The Bears are running the ball on 60.1 percent of plays since Trubisky took over (the highest rate in the NFL). Expect that lopsided approach to continue with Jordan Howard facing a Packers defense that ranks in the bottom 10 in rushing yards allowed per game this season (118.0). Coming out of the bye, it will be interesting to see if Trubisky made any leaps in the mental aspects and whether his coaches are prepared to put the game in his hands yet. Each game we see brilliant flashes from Tru, but he hasn't strung together drives consistently. If the Bears are to open the offense this season, it seems like the perfect time would be coming off a bye versus a rival that is reeling -- Dom Capers' D hasn't rushed the passer in weeks and couldn't stop a one-winged, two-month-old hen from converting a third down.
Did the bye week help out DeShone Kizer? The struggling rookie certainly needed the break -- the fact that Cleveland tried but failed to replace him with AJ McCarron at the trade deadline couldn't have helped Kizer's confidence. With Detroit continuing to struggle covering tight ends, David Njoku is Kizer's best bet to move the ball Sunday. The athletic rookie should find open grass over the middle and in the red zone. When last we saw the Browns' offense, Jackson's game plan was to get the ball out quick and help his rookie quarterback avoid negative plays. The Lions have feasted as a bend-and-get-a-turnover defense this season. If Kizer is to pick up his first career win, he must avoid the red-zone turnovers that have plagued him through seven starts.
The past three games Matthew Stafford has been hotter than 14 fire emojis. The Detroit Lions' gunslinger has thrown for 300-plus yards in three straight games for the first time since 2011. He's compiled a whopping 1,096 passing yards in those games (that's just 48 yards fewer in those three tilts than Kizer has put up in seven starts this season). When Stafford gets protection, he's surgical. Even with Myles Garrett back on the field for Cleveland, the Lions have a decided advantage through the air. Facing a stout Browns run D, expect Stafford to drop back plenty Sunday. Hue Jackson expects the team's two best defensive backs, slot corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun (hamstring) and outside Jason McCourty (toe) to play, which could give Golden Tate and Marvin Jones some trouble. The Browns, however, struggle against tight ends and backs out of the backfield, so Stafford should target Darren Fells, Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick often to pick up chunk gains.
NFL Research stat of the week: Since 2014, Stafford is 27-5 against teams to finish the season with a record of .500 or worse (based on end of season record, but including current 2017 records) with a 67.0 completion percentage, 275.6 passing yards per game, 64 TDs, 17 INTs and a 131.8 passer rating.
Facing a Colts defense that is in disarray and just lost two of its top veterans (Vontae Davis: cut; Henry Anderson: IR), on paper, the Steelers' offense has an advantage all over the field. However, it is times like these when Ben Roethlisberger's crew plays down to its inferior opponents on the road. With the Martavis Bryant situation supposedly in the rearview, I want to see if Big Ben takes the opportunity against a struggling defense to feed the disgruntled receiver. Bryant has done nothing to warrant the treatment this season, but if the Steelers are to make a run to the Super Bowl, having a big-play receiver on the outside would come in handy. Chuck Pagano's defense has been worked over this season, ranking 31st in yards allowed and dead last in the NFL in points given up. They've been particularly poor against second and third receivers, which makes Bryant's matchup a good one if Roethlisberger decides to look his way.
The bright spot surrounding the disastrous Andrew Luck situation is that at least the Colts unearthed Jacoby Brissett. The strong-armed quarterback has improved each week. The past two games he's completed more than 64 percent of his passes and averaged 270.5 passing yards per game with four touchdowns and one interception. While Brissett's offense has gone in lulls for stretches, the second-year pro makes enough big plays and can make all the throws. He gets his stiffest test of the season Sunday versus a Steelers defense that is giving up 180 yards passing and is one of just four teams with more interceptions (7) than passing touchdowns allowed (6). However, the last time we saw the Steelers, another big-armed QB was dicing up the secondary: Matthew Stafford. There are lanes to throw versus Pittsburgh secondary, especially down the field. If Brissett can get protection from the Steelers' ferocious pass rush, he could connect on a few big plays to T.Y. Hilton.
NFL Research stat of the week:Le'Veon Bell has the most carries (194) and touches (229) in the NFL while Antonio Brown has the most receptions (57) in the league. Since the 1970 merger, the 2010 Falcons are the only other team to have the NFL leaders in both carries (Michael Turner) and receptions (Roddy White).
With the Jags' defense smothering the passing game, Sunday's trip to Jacksonville portends a heavy workload for Melvin Gordon. The running back is the only player in the NFL with four-plus rush TDs and four-plus receiving TDs this season -- the only player to do so in the first eight games of a season since Marshall Faulk. Gordon faces a Jacksonville defense that was a sieve against the run early in the season but performed well last week with new addition Marcell Dareus. With Philip Rivers throwing into a ruthless secondary that is ranked first in passer rating (63.5) and passing yards allowed per game (156.4), Gordon must churn out chunk gains for the Chargers to move the ball against Sacksonville.
Leonard Fournette is slated to return to the field for the first time since Oct. 15. The bulldozing rookie running back missed last week on a one-game punishment for violating team rules -- he previously sat with an ankle injury. While Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram bring the storm of a thousand thunderbolts rushing the passer, the Chargers' defense has been gashed on the ground, ranking 26th versus the run by Football Outsiders. Fournette's return will give Blake Bortles some reprieve. Without the rookie back, the Jags offense remained a risky proposition, with Bortles narrowly escaping some disastrous interceptions. Fournette in the lineup immediately brings better down-and-distance scenarios and forces defenses to stack the box, making the quarterback's job easier. With the Jags posting back-to-back wins, here is a fun tidbit: Bortles has never won three consecutive games as a starting QB. There's a first for everything, right?
NFL Research stat of the week: Since 1994, each of the 26 teams to allow fewer than 15 points per game for a full season made the playoffs (Jaguars allowing 14.6 PPG this season). The last team to allow fewer than 15 PPG and miss the playoffs was the 1993 Bears (with QB Jim Harbaugh). The Jaguars have allowed fewer than 10 points in all five wins this season.
The Journeyman Quarterback Revenge Battle!
Josh McCown faces off against his former team (we can say that about 22 percent of NFL teams now when talking about McCown). The 38-year-old is on pace for career highs in completion percentage (70.4) and yards (currently with 1,980) and already tied his career-high with 13 touchdown passes. On Sunday, he is primed for a big day against a morbid Bucs defense which owns the NFL's worst third-down defense (49.5 conversion rate) and has the fewest sacks (8) in the NFL this season. Rising second-year receiver Robby Anderson has been a big-play machine of late, scoring touchdowns in three straight games. Anderson should be in line for another massive day against Tampa's secondary, which ranks 31st in DVOA against the pass.
Ryan Fitzpatrick fizzled out in New York last year (but he'll always have that 2015 season, right, Jets fans?). With Jameis Winston out, Fitzy makes his first start since guiding Gang Green to a Week 17 win last year. Fitzpatrick is a serviceable backup in nearly all his stops, astonishingly starting at least one game every season since 2008. The 34-year-old will have his blowups, but he can move the ball. That job, however, becomes more difficult with Mike Evans suspended. With Winston unable to connect with DeSean Jackson deep this season, perhaps Fitzy is the man to unlock the DJax magic. Turnovers are always a risk with Fitzpatrick, however, and he faces a Jets defense that has five straight games with 2-plus takeaways -- the longest single-season streak by NYJ since 1993 (7 such games).
How will A.J. Green bounce back from his ejection last week? The Pro Bowl receiver's frustration boiled over against Jalen Ramsey, but you could see it building well before last week. Green has earned fewer than 50 yards in each of his last three games. Expect Andy Dalton to force-feed the lanky playmaker Sunday against smaller corners, Ryan Logan and Adoree' Jackson. The Titans defense has solidified of late, especially with second-year safety Kevin Byard becoming a ball-hawk, but offenses can still pick on them through the air -- Tennessee ranks 22nd in pass DVOA by Football Outsiders. If Dalton can find even a modicum of protection, Green should be in for a bounce-back week.
Marcus Mariota's hamstring injury curtailed his running ability, which has hampered the Titans' running game. DeMarco Murray (dealing with a hamstring issue of his own) and Derrick Henry have combined for 117 yards on 48 carries the past two games, for a paltry 2.4 yards per carry. Mariota's limited running ability contributed to that restricted run game. Without the threat of the quarterback galloping outside the pocket, defenses collapsed on Murray and Henry. The good news for Titans fans is that Mike Mularkey said this week that he plans to get the quarterback's legs going more. A few big runs from Mariota should open lanes for the running backs. We also need to see how much rookie receiver Corey Davis' production will increase. The first-round pick should help expand the Titans offense down the field against Cincinnati.
The Case Keenum show marches on. Even with Teddy Bridgewater activated this week, the Vikings will ride the veteran until he stumbles. Keenum is on pace for his best statistical season since entering the league in 2012 (he has never started more than nine games in a single season), completing 63.9 percent of his passes for 230 yards per game and an 88.8 passer rating. They aren't otherworldly numbers, but the journeyman backup has been solid leading a defense-first squad. Washington's defense has been physically stout much of the season but has had its struggles, most notably against shifty slot receivers that can move around the formation. The matchup means Adam Thielen is in for another big afternoon as Keenum's go-to target.
How much more does Kirk Cousins need to do -- basically by himself -- before doubters zip their turkey holes? Since Week 3, Cousins ranks 2nd in the NFL in passing yards per attempt (8.6), 3rd in the NFL in completion percentage (70.1), 4th in passer rating (108.4) and 5th in passing yards per game (288.0). Reminder: He's doing all this behind an offense line pulverized by injuries, his best tight end injured every other snap, and his receiving corps doing next to nothing. Repeat: Kirk Cousins is putting up top-five numbers with running back Chris Thompson and old man Vernon Davis as his go-to targets. On degree of difficulty alone, Cousins deserves every penny of that franchise tag. The difficulty skyrockets this week, however. The Redskins QB faces a Vikings defense that has annihilated quarterbacks in their last four games:
0-of-4 QBs have thrown for 200-plus pass yards
0-of-4 QBs finished with a passer rating over 90-plus
0-of-4 QBs have thrown more than 1-plus pass TD
Allowed only one completion of 21-plus air yards (Kizer, 1)
NFL Research stat of the week: The Vikings' defense this season has been among the best in team history: PPG allowed: 16.9, Minnesota's best since 1992
Total YPG allowed: 282.1, best since 1993
Rush YPG allowed: 81.4, best since 2008
Total TD allowed/G: 1.5, best since 1973
Another week of Tom Savage starting under center. Will the quarterback who admitted he played like trash last week make it through the whole game? The Texans have scored 10.5 points per game with Savage under center. Among the notable drop-offs from Deshaun Watson to Savage is the deep accuracy. The rookie was completing 47.2 percent of passes of 15-plus air yards. Savage is completing 13.3 percent (not a typo). DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller combined for eight receptions on 24 targets in Week 9 versus Indianapolis with Savage as the QB. The combined 33.3 reception percentage was their lowest as a duo this season. If Savage struggles like he did last week, we shouldn't be surprised if Bill O'Brien begins another round of his favorite game: Quarterback Roulette.
The Rams' offense has been more explosive than a Fourth of July fireworks finale. L.A. has scored 30-plus points in five games this season. In their previous three seasons combined (2014-16), the Rams scored 30-plus points five times (#ThanksJeffFisher). The superlatives extend throughout the offense, from coach Sean McVay and an impressive offensive line to Todd Gurley's resurgence. Jared Goff deserves his own praise for growing out of the turtle shell he sheepishly sunk into last season. Goff's 97.9 passer rating this season is the fourth-best in a season by a Rams QB to start at least eight games, behind only three Kurt Warner years. The second-year signal-caller has a chance to add to that number Sunday against a Texans secondary that gave up huge plays to the Seahawks and Colts the past two weeks. I would be shocked if Goff didn't take several shots deep to Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods on Sunday in L.A.
For the first time this year, it's official: No Ezekiel Elliott. It's hard to overstate what the loss of Zeke means for the Cowboys' offense. Elliott leads all NFL players in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, scrimmage yards and scrimmage touchdowns since 2016. When he struggled early in the season, the team was less efficient. The play-fakes and zone-reads with Dak Prescott are much less effective sans Zeke. Toss in that NFL Network's Jane Slater reported left tackle Tyron Smith isn't expected to play, and the Cowboys' run game went from league best to possibly middle of the pack in a hurry. Alfred Morris is slated to get the first shot at the lead role, but keep an eye on Rod Smith. The former undrafted player could be the team's best option for a three-down workhorse in Elliott's absence.
The Falcons' offense has seen its wings clipped this season. At some point, we must admit it won't return to its 2016 highs. Atlanta ranks T-27th in points per game since Week 4 (16.6 PPG). The only other teams averaging fewer than 17 PPG in that span: Cleveland, Denver, Miami, San Francisco and Arizona. That is a gruesome list, friends, and only the Falcons haven't used a backup quarterback in that span (excuse me while I hurl). The curious usage of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in both the run and passing game is one of the confounding problems for Steve Sarkisian. Freeman hasn't earned more than 12 carries since Week 4 and Coleman has a combined three catches over that same span. Getting the running backs going against an improving Cowboys defense is vital for Atlanta to keep a surging Cowboys pass rush off Ryan when he drops back -- Dallas has 27 sacks this season (third-most in NFL).
The Depressing Bowl: Two proud franchises fighting to try and stay out of the NFC cellar.
Facing a 49ers defense that allowed Old Man Adrian Peterson to gallop all over the field last week, the Giants should be able to get the ground game going. Orleans Darkwa showed some pop in last week's blowout loss against the Rams and should be in for a stellar day. This is the one week this year the Giants own mismatches all over the field against an injured, talent-deprived 49ers unit. Evan Engram should continue his historic pace as Eli Manning's go-to target. If Big Blue can't move the ball Sunday in Santa Clara, Ben McAdoo might as well not get on the plane back to New York.
This could be the last week we see C.J. Beathard before Jimmy Garoppolo takes the reins, but the show will belong to Carlos Hyde. The 49ers need to ride their best player to keep the offensive line from killing Beathard before the team's bye. The poor rookie quarterback got pulverized like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man last week. Meanwhile, Hyde continues to show burst in the hole and picks up big gainers each week. Given a mouthwatering matchup versus a porous Giants run defense, Kyle Shanahan needs to saddle his best back until the wheels fall off.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Giants are 1-7 or worse for just the third time in the Super Bowl era: 1980 and 1976 were the other times (1980 was also the last time NYG started 1-8 or worse). The 49ers are 0-9 for the first time in franchise history. San Francisco has never finished a season worse than 2-14 (4 times, including 2016).
Playing in Denver has been Tom Brady's bugaboo. Brady is 3-7 in his career in Denver (including playoffs) -- 7-9 overall vs. DEN (including playoffs), the only team he is below .500 against. This isn't exactly the Peyton Manning-led Broncos he's facing, however. Denver's vaunted defense is coming off its worst game of the season, giving up 419 yards to Philadelphia -- the first time all season they even allowed 300 total yards. Still, the talent is there to give Brady trouble, with Von Miller rushing the passer and Aqib Talib and Chris Harris on the back end. Missing Chris Hogan will be a blow to Brady on the outside, but he'll have the middle with which to work. The matchup bodes well for a boffo day for Rob Gronkowski, who leads all tight ends with 72.7 receiving YPG this season. The Broncos have struggled to cover tight ends this season, giving up 623 total yards to the position, second-most in the NFL, and got burned by Eagles backup tight ends last week.
Brock Osweiler is not the answer under center for Denver, but he'll get another start in hopes that Paxton Lynch is ready down the road. Denver's offense owns its worst pass offense since the Tim Tebow season of 2011. At least Tebow's teams could run the ball. The Broncos have failed to earn 70 yards rushing in three of the past four games. Against a Patriots defense ranked 27th in DVOA versus the run, C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles and Devontae Booker need to carry the load early to take the pressure off Brock and keep Brady on the sideline. If Osweiler is forced to try to lead the offense with his arm, it's going to be another embarrassing day in Denver.
NFL Research stat of the week: Since 2011, no player has sacked Tom Brady more than Von Miller: 7.5 sacks on Brady (including playoffs) in 8 games. Cameron Wake: 7.5 sacks on Brady in 14 games.
Can Jay Cutler dink and dunk his way down the field against the Panthers defense? If their first outing without Jay Ajayi, the Dolphins' offense was more efficient utilizing the quick-pass game. Against a Carolina defense that stuffs the run, expect a similar strategy for Miami behind a still-struggling offensive line. Monday night's game sets up as a Jarvis Landry-centric tilt against a Panthers defense that has had its biggest problems against shifty slot receivers. Also, expect plenty of targets to Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams out of the backfield versus a Carolina D that given up 50 catches to running backs this season.
The Panthers' offense is back to the 2015 version with Cam Newton scampering over defenses. Last week, Cam rushed for 86 yards on nine carries and a slam-dunk touchdown. With Carolina surging toward the playoffs, we should expect the strategy to remain the same. With Newton a threat to run, it's opened Christian McCaffrey to get to the edge of the defense. Taking over the workload last week, the rookie had his best day on the ground, rushing 15 times for 66 yards and a score. CMC still struggles between the tackles, but Carolina should be able to get him to the edge again on a bevy of pitches and designed stretch runs to attack the Dolphins' weaker boundary tacklers. If the Panthers' running game gets rolling, it should open up Devin Funchess and tight end Ed Dickson over the middle against a suspect Miami pass defense.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Dolphins' 14.5 PPG this season would rank as the second-lowest of any team over the last five NFL seasons (rank 159th out of 160) -- 2016 Los Angeles Rams: 14.0 PPG. Since the 1970 merger, no team with the last-ranked scoring offense has finished better than 6-10.