GOLD JACKET FEATURE
MIAMI @ NEW ENGLAND, 1 p.m. (EDT)
The line: Patriots by 7
The weather: Sunny, high of 66
The story: There is no such thing as a “must-win game” in September … unless, of course, you happen to be a New England fan. Because the last time the Patriots trailed an AFC East leader by two games — which they do now — was 2002. And that was the last time they missed the playoffs when Tom Brady was their quarterback at season’s end. So, yeah, this is a big game … but for both teams. For unbeaten Miami, it’s a chance to prove that — for the first time since 2008 — the division is wide open again. For New England, it’s another early-season pushback to cynics and critics who have them headed for life support. Yes, the Patriots are hurting. Yes, they’re short at key positions. And, yes, they just haven’t been very good. But keep this in mind: Brady is 14-1 at home vs. Miami and hasn’t suffered a three-game losing streak since … well, since 2002, his second year as the team’s starter and Belichick’s third as the Patriots’ head coach. He’s also 45-11 in games following a loss. “The records are irrelevant right now,” said Miami’s Adam Gase. “It doesn’t mean anything.” Maybe.
Something to consider: The Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill is 10-1 in his last 11 starts and has thrown for 300 or more yards in his last four games vs. the Patriots.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
TAMPA BAY @ CHICAGO, 1 pm. (EDT)
The line: Bears by 3
The weather: Showers, high of 70
The story: Jameis Winston is back from a three-game suspension, but he hasn’t reclaimed his starting job. Not yet, he hasn’t. But Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s thrown for over 400 yards in each of the three games Winston sat, hasn’t been told he’s keeping his starting job, either. Are we having fun yet? Bucs’ coach Dirk Koetter says he has “a plan” and that both quarterbacks are aware of it, but it would be a shocker if Fitzpatrick … correction: Fitz-Magic … doesn’t keep the job. First of all, he’s played way over his head. Second, the Bucs are 2-1. And third, Winston has been MIA for three weeks. So why change? Of course, we could see a switch during the course of this game if the Bears’ defense does what it’s been doing all season — namely, beating down opponents with takeaways and beating up quarterbacks with Khalil Mack. Consider this an early litmus test for both sides.
Something to consider: The Bears lead the league with 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles and are tied for first with 11 three-and-outs.
PHILADELPHIA @ TENNESSEE, 1 p.m. (EDT)
The line: Eagles by 3-1/2
The weather: Sunny, high of 85
The story: Finally, Malcolm Butler gets to play the Eagles. The former Patriots’ cornerback sat for the entire Super Bowl (don’t ask why), and you saw what happened. But that was then and this is now … and now it’s not Nick Foles quarterbacking Philadelphia. It’s Carson Wentz, who passed his first test in last week’s defeat of Indianapolis, Wentz’s first game back since suffering torn knee ligaments last December. Wentz is not the concern here, but running back Jay Ajayi might be. He has a small fracture in his back but plans to play. “You just have to roll with it until it heals on its own,” he said. “You just have to protect it.” And playing a game of football does that … how?
Something to consider: The Titans love to run the ball, with their 97 attempts this season tied for second with Cleveland. But good luck vs. the Eagles. As they did a year ago, they lead the league in rushing defense — allowing an average of 61.7 yards per game, including 45.3 to opposing running backs.
BALTIMORE @ PITTSBURGH, 8:25 p.m. (EDT)
The line: Steelers by 3
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 76
The story: Baltimore leads the league in defense, which is nothing new, but Pittsburgh is 29th … and that is. The Steelers allow an average … average … of 30 points and 410 yards per game, and hemorrhaged 42 or more points in two of their last four starts dating back to the 2017 playoffs. OK, so Baltimore isn’t exactly Air Coryell. But quarterback Joe Flacco is playing well, and so is the Ravens’ offense — averaging 32 points a game and scoring on all 12 of its Red Zone possessions. Normally, this is a chess match with four of the last six decided by four or fewer points and defense predominating. But not here, not now. The Steelers are a Top-5 offense, averaging 29.3 points and 453 yards per. Granted, they don’t have Le’Veon Bell. But they do have Ben Roethlisberger, and they’re throwing more than ever — with Big Ben throwing for six TDs the past two weeks, including three in a 452-yard effort vs. Kansas City. That was at Heinz Field, and, while it may happen again, keep this in mind: This is the time … with the emphasis on time … that Roethlisberger excels. He’s 40-14 in regular-season prime-time games.
Something to consider: Dating back to last season, in their last four games the Ravens scored TDs on 15 of 16 Red Zone series.
BEATING THE ODDS
RICK GOSSELIN — CLEVELAND (+3). The history of rookie quarterbacks in their starting debuts is not a good one. But I like Baker Mayfield’s chances vs. a Khalil Mack-less Oakland defense that does not pressure the passer. (Season record: 2-1).
RON BORGES — PHILADELPHIA (–3-1/2). Tennessee is coming off a big win, but the Eagles are coming off the return of Carson Wentz. I’ll take Wentz over new coach Mike Vrabel’s young Titans. (Season record: 1-2).
CLARK JUDGE — MIAMI (+7). No, I don’t think the Dolphins win, but they’ll push the undermanned Pats to the mat. (Season record: 1-2).
THE SUNDAY OMG
Baker Mayfield will try to make history Sunday when his first NFL start is vs. the Raiders. Since 1980, four rookies made their first starts vs. the Raiders, and all lost. The last was Tim Tebow in 2010. But Mayfield’s not alone in History 101 this week. Arizona’s Josh Rosen makes his NFL debut as a starter in Seattle, and the last rookie to win his starting debut vs. the Seahawks was … yep, Gary Kubiak in 1983. Since then, four have tried, and four have failed.
THE WEEKEND PLAY LIST
INDIANAPOLIS PK ADAM VINATIERI. With his next field goal, he becomes the most successful kicker in NFL history, surpassing Hall-of-Famer Morten Andersen at 566 field goals. Both he and Vinatieri are tied with 565.
NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES. He needs just four touchdown passes to become the third quarterback ever to produce 500 career TDs. The others are Peyton Manning (539) and Brett Favre (508).
CLEVELAND QB BAKER MAYFIELD. He can become only the fifth rookie quarterback chosen with the first pick to win his first start in the Super Bowl era. The others are Jim Plunkett (1971), John Elway (1983), Michael Vick (2001) and David Carr (2002). Of those four, only Elway won on the road.
N.Y. GIANTS RB SAQUON BARKLEY. He can become only the fifth player in NFL history to produce 100 scrimmage yards in each of his first four games.
ATLANTA LB VIC BEASLEY. He has 8-1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles in his last seven games vs. the AFC.
HOUSTON DE J.J. WATT. In his past seven division games on the road he has eight sacks, 11 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles.
SEATTLE QB RUSSELL WILSON. In his last three starts vs. Arizona, he has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions, and in six career games in Arizona he has 11 TD passes, one interception and a 102.1 passer rating.
ARIZONA DE CHANDLER JONES. He has 7-1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles in five career games vs. Seattle and aims for his sixth straight game vs. the Seahawks with at least one sack.
TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD REMEMBER
- Through three weeks there are nine quarterbacks with passer ratings of 100 or better, tied with 2015 and 2008 for the most during that period. Seven quarterbacks have completed 70 percent or more of their passes, the second most in league history through the first three games.
- Drew Brees’ 80.6 completion rate is the highest ever by a quarterback through the first three weeks.
- Baltimore is the first team in league history to score touchdowns on all 12 of its Red Zone possessions this season.
- Pittsburgh has scored 20 or more points in 13 consecutive games, the longest current streak in the NFL. This weekend’s opponent, Baltimore, is second with 12.
- Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees are the only starting quarterbacks not to have thrown an interception this season.
- Since Week 11 of 2017, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers leads the NFL with 2,907 passing yards. He’s thrown 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions during that period.
- The Bears haven’t allowed a touchdown in nine of 12 quarters this season and have shut out opponents in seven of those periods.
- Philadelphia’s seven consecutive wins vs. AFC South opponents is their longest victory streak vs. any division.
- Each of the last 10 times Green Bay suffered a loss in September it won the following week.
- The Raiders have been outscored 37-3 in the fourth quarter and 64-17 in the second half.