Every game has an “x-factor” — a player, coach, or simple personnel mismatch that can turn the tide and give one team a decisive edge. Last week’s Sunday night match-up between the Bears and Packers was a perfect example of this: while the Bears dominated on defense in the first half, they failed to adjust after the Packers made a halftime switch to a quick-hitting, “catch-and-fire” type of offense, matched up safeties on wide receivers with no help over the top, and were burned several times en route to a monumental collapse.
In that case, the “x-factor” was coaching: while the Packers noticed that the Bears’ pass rush had been living in the backfield on slow-developing plays throughout the entire first half and adjusted their play calling accordingly, the Bears failed to respond, and hence, paid the price. In this week’s preview, I have identified the crucial elements in each game of the weekly slate, and how they could sway the end result one way or the other.
1:00 PM, ET
Panthers @ Falcons
Although a game can never come down to just one factor, a large part of the blame for the Falcons’ heartbreaking 18-12 opening night loss has to be attributed to their inability to score in the red zone. After being stuffed at the goal line on fourth down on their opening possession, the Falcons squandered five straight plays inside Philly’s 10-yard line to come up short at the very end.
Much of it has to do with Matt Ryan’s sloppy red zone performance, which included failing to see rookie WR Calvin Ridley coming wide open on a slant-flat combo on the very last play. Over the course of that game, Ryan completed just 20% of his passes in the red zone. That number, as well as his chemistry with Ridley, will have to improve for the Falcons to win.
Prediction: Panthers 23, Falcons 20
Chargers @ Bills
After his putrid Week 1 performance, during which he completed just 5 of 18 passes, QB Nathan Peterman will not get a chance at a revenge game against the Chargers. Instead, the “x-factor” will be gunslinging rookie QB Josh Allen. Although Allen has tremendous natural tools, he exhibited stiff feet in the pocket all throughout preseason and his accuracy tended to degrade under pressure, which could pose problems against the Chargers’ stout D.
The Chargers will be without star pass rusher Joey Bosa, which may ease the load on Allen, but the Bills will still have their hands full with DE Melvin Ingram and the stout LA secondary.
Prediction: Chargers 28, Bills 10
Vikings @ Packers
Despite suffering a knee injury early in last Sunday’s contest against the Bears, QB Aaron Rodgers actually seemed to be more efficient with his limited mobility in the second half, as he was able to rely on quick-hitting passes to gash Chicago’s defense before any pass rushers could even get near him. However, what worked in last week’s miraculous 20-point comeback may not work this time, as the Vikings have had a full week to game plan and adjust.
Ultimately, the Packers success will be determined by whether the Vikings cornerbacks are able to contain quick, in-breaking routes off the line, and whether the Vikings leave adequate safety help over the top, which the Bears did not. Superstar Vikings safety Harrison Smith is known to gamble on breaking on underneath routes, which could either cause a key takeaway against a limited Rodgers, or lead to backbreaking long gains.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Packers 21
Texans @ Titans
This contest should largely come down to which team’s second-tier offensive linemen are able to step up, and how each team’s quarterbacks respond. The Texans are starting two extremely raw, young players in rookie LT Martinas Rankin and RT Julie’n Davenport. Although Rankin played well during the second half against the Patriots, both are bound to take their fair share of lumps as the season goes on.
The Titans, meanwhile, will not only be missing Pro Bowl-caliber starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, but also likely swing tackle Dennis Kelly too, so their offensive line will be in utter shambles. With Titans starting QB Marcus Mariota still smarting from an elbow injury and due to split time with backup Blaine Gabbert, the advantage goes to Deshaun Watson and the Texans, who should bounce back from their Week 1 offensive struggles.
Prediction: Texans 13, Titans 10
Browns @ Saints
As is the case with most Saints games, the “x-factor” will be star running back Alvin Kamara. During their Week 1 tie with the Steelers, the Browns struggled mightily against second-year running back James Conner, who torched them 135 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, as well as five catches for 57 yards through the air. Kamara is an especially deadly receiving threat, and could make the Browns pay even more dearly if he gets the ball in space.
One way that the Browns could combat this is by playing a “big dime” defense, in which backup safety Briean Boddy-Calhoun follows Kamara into the slot. However, this is unlikely to happen, as the Browns spent a whopping 66% of their plays in the base 4-3 defense last year, far more than any other team.
Prediction: Saints 31, Browns 14
Dolphins @ Jets
Fresh off of a dominant 48-17 win over the Lions, during which rookie QB Sam Darnold put together a phenomenal debut performance and safety Jamal Adams recorded his first-ever interception, the Jets have all the momentum on their side heading into their first home game. However, the Dolphins are coming off their own Week 1 win, during which QB Ryan Tannehill looked extremely efficient apart from his two interceptions.
Ultimately, it could come down to how the Jets handle Miami’s passing attack. Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson was beaten over the middle a few times again the Lions, and could have trouble with quicker, faster Dolphins deep threat Kenny Stills. Meanwhile, neither Avery Williamson nor Darron Lee are dominant coverage ‘backers, so they could have trouble with Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola over the middle. The Jets should win by virtue of a well-coached offense, but it should not come as easily as it did on Monday night.
Prediction: Jets 27, Dolphins 23
Chiefs @ Steelers
Although the Steelers’ offense struggled mightily in last week’s tie with the Browns, turning the ball over six times, that is unlikely to happen again, primarily as Chiefs do not have the same defensive play-makers that the Browns do. Instead, it should come down to how the Steelers combat Kansas City’s dominant passing attack.
Last week, WR Tyreek Hill was absolutely dominant as he hauled seven catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns, one of which came on a quick slant that he took to the house. Considering that the Steelers have an already-weak linebacking corps, unless they are able to jam Hill at the line, the combination of Hill and TE Travis Kelce in space over the middle may simply be too much to handle.
Prediction: Chiefs 35, Steelers 28
Eagles @ Buccaneers
Last week, what many expected to be an easy New Orleans victory with Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston suspended turned into an unprecedented shootout loss. Why? Bucs backup Ryan Fitzpatrick inexplicably decided to turn into the greatest quarterback of all time for a day. The Bucs’ offensive arsenal is an embarrassment of riches, featuring star deep threat Mike Evans alongside burners Chris Godwin and DeSean Jackson, as well as speedy young tight end O.J. Howard.
If Fitzpatrick is on his game again, this could be another upset for the Bucs, especially considering Nick Foles’s recent struggles. However, the Eagles’ defense is dominant at every level of the field, and should force the normally-erratic Fitzpatrick into a few costly mistakes.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Buccaneers 21
Colts @ Washington
Last week, newly-acquired QB Alex Smith was able to tear the Cardinals to shreds on underneath routes, with running backs Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson accounting for 133 of Washington’s 255 receiving yards. Although this success is likely unsustainable for Peterson, who has never been a consistent pass-catcher out of the backfield, Thompson and TE Jordan Reed should continue to have success over the middle against the Colts’ inexperienced linebackers and safeties.
Ultimately, the game should come down to whether the Colts’ raw second-year corners, Nate Hairston and Quincy Wilson, will be able to manage Washington’s talented, yet inconsistent receiving corps. Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson struggled last week, but should continue to grow as vertical threats and could have a bounce-back game.
Prediction: Washington 24, Colts 14
4:05 PM, ET
Cardinals @ Rams
On the surface, this seems like a blowout. The Rams have a terrific tandem of cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, the former of whom recorded the controversial game-winning pick-six against the Raiders on Monday night, coupled with a terrifying pair of interior rushers in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, who will be facing an extremely shoddy Cardinals o-line. However, that is not to say that the Rams are without their flaws.
For one, their linebacking corps is weak, which Hall of Fame wideout Larry Fitzgerald could take advantage of. Especially if the Cardinals are able to establish the run early and then draw linebackers out of position using play action. Ultimately, however, the Rams have simply too much high end talent. Their electric offense has already begun clicking, so they should have this one in the bag.
Prediction: Rams 34, Cardinals 17
Lions @ 49ers
Last week, both the Lions and the Niners saw their quarterbacks struggle with turnovers. San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo threw three interceptions against the Vikings, while Stafford threw four against the Jets. This week should be a matter of which offense is able to bounce back. Talented rookie WR Dante Pettis has earned a chance to start with Marquise Goodwin out with a quad injury, so the combination of Pettis and veteran Pierre Garçon, both talented route runners, could allow Garoppolo to get into a rhythm early.
Another area of concern for the Lions last week was predictability. If they are able to avoid that this week, they could establish the run and allow Stafford to work off play action. However, if the Niners are able to catch on to Detroit’s offensive scheme early, they may come away with a dominant home win.
Prediction: 49ers 28, Lions 21
4:25 PM, ET
Raiders @ Broncos
Although the Broncos ultimately came away with a hard-fought 27-24 win over the Seahawks last Sunday, they likely would have pulled away had it not been for Case Keenum’s three interceptions. Both of Denver’s rookie running backs, Royce Freeman and Philip Lindsay, showed out last week, with each posting 71 yards on 15 carries. The wide receiver corps was even more electric, with the team’s top three options — Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, and rookie Courtland Sutton — combining for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
If Keenum is able to take care of the ball against a weaker Raiders defense, the rest of the Broncos offense has more than enough explosiveness to wreak havoc in space, making Denver the easy home favorites.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Raiders 17
Patriots @ Jaguars
Although the Jaguars barely squeaked out a 20-15 win last week against the Giants, they have an advantage in all the right places in this week’s AFC Championship rematch. Last week, Patriots’ TE Rob Gronkowski was able to feast on the Texans’ young linebacking corps, racking up 123 yards and a score on seven catches. This week, however, he faces a much taller task, as he will be matched up against Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, two of the rangiest linebackers in football.
On top of that, while speedster Philip Dorsett was able to haul in seven catches against the Texans’ older cornerback group, he will likely have a much quieter day against All-Pro caliber corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, leaving the Patriots very few options in the passing game. Barring a tremendous effort from QB Tom Brady or a colossal showing by running backs James White and Jeremy Hill, it would take a sloppy showing by the entire Jaguars offense to squander such a clear defensive personnel advantage.
Prediction: Jaguars 17, Patriots 13
8:20 PM, ET
Giants @ Cowboys
Last Sunday, neither the Giants nor the Cowboys managed to put together even an adequate offensive showing, with both teams combining for just 23 points and two touchdowns. In each case, most of the blame goes to the offensive line. The Giants saw rookie running back Saquon Barkley routinely suffocated behind the line for little or no gain. Cowboys QB Das Prescott faced constant pressure, and was forced to get the ball out quickly to a weak group of receivers. In fact, if it wasn’t for one miraculous 68-yard touchdown run by Barkley, the Giants would never have been in the game at all.
Accordingly, this week could come down to which team is able to squeeze out one or two long plays to pull ahead late. Considering that Giants superstar wideout Odell Beckham, Jr. should be back at close to full health, he affords New York a slight edge, as he provides the greatest potential for explosiveness of either team.
Prediction: Giants 20, Cowboys 14
8:15 PM, ET
Seahawks @ Bears
While all eyes will be on young Chicago signal-caller Mitchell Trubisky and how he adjusts to Seattle’s zone defense after struggling against Green Bay’s defensive back-heavy looks, the real “x-factor” to this game will be the Bears’ tandem of running backs. With Pro Bowlers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright both ruled out for Monday night, the Seahawks will be playing a largely unproved hodgepodge of linebackers, including Barkevious Mingo, Austin Calitro, new signee Mychal Kendricks, and rookie Shaquem Griffin.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll complained about the rookie Griffin being “fooled on a couple of things,”. While Kendricks may do wonders for the Seahawks’ stock portfolios, he will also need time to adjust to the system, meaning that the Seahawks will go into Monday night with tremendous uncertainty at linebacker.
If RB Jordan Howard, a savvy runner with excellent vision and power, is able to take advantage of this, it could lead to a dominant Bears win. However, if neither Howard or Tarik Cohen is able to establish the run early, it will all come back to Trubisky and how he responds to exotic looks.
Prediction: Bears 24, Seahawks 17