Game of the week
Cleveland at New England
The Patriots are a 1 1/2-point favorite and don’t look now, but they are only a half-game behind Buffalo in the AFC East and have a plus-60 point differential. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones throws two fourth-quarter touchdowns to move New England two games over .500 for the first time this year.
Patriots 27, Browns 21
Lock of the week
Minnesota at L.A. Chargers
The Chargers are a 2 1/2-point favorite after ending their two-game losing streak with a final-seconds win at Philadelphia. Quarterback Justin Herbert completed a career-high 84.2% of his passes against the Eagles, but look for running back Austin Ekeler to probe the Vikings’ 30th-ranked run defense.
Chargers 34, Vikings 20
Upset of the week
Seattle at Green Bay
Off their bye, the Seahawks (3-5) are a 3 1/2-point underdog and even if the Packers have quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, it will be without any practice. The key will be Seattle’s Russell Wilson returning from a broken finger to pull off the upset and keep their playoff hopes alive.
Seahawks 17, Packers 14
Around the NFC
Fields making strides. Chicago is off this weekend, which will give rookie quarterback Justin Fields a chance to heal up. The good news was his second-half play at Pittsburgh in which he led a near-comeback win while throwing for a season-best 291 yards. The bad is the Bears’ pass protection and/or Fields’ decision outside the pocket. The Bears have allowed 29 sacks, including 15 in the last four games. For the season, Fields has four touchdowns and eight interceptions. If he progresses during a losing season, does that buy general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy another season? It shouldn’t, especially if Fields isn’t protected well in the season’s second half.
Vikings’ defensive collapse. Minnesota’s points-per-game ranking from 2015-19 was fifth, sixth, first, ninth and fifth. The were 29th in 2020 and are 17th this year. In last week’s overtime loss at Baltimore, the Vikings’ defense was on the field for 89 plays and allowed 503 yards. The dismissal of coach Mike Zimmer, the play-caller/architect of the defense, seems inevitable. How culpable ownership finds general manager Rick Spielman is just as big of a question. Whoever takes over will inherit quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has a $45 million salary cap hit in 2022.
Darnold injured. Why did Carolina think it could fix quarterback Sam Darnold? He was decent during the Panthers’ 3-0 start, but over the next six games (1-5 record), he had four touchdowns and eight interceptions. He went to injured reserve Wednesday because of a broken scapula, P.J. Walker steps in and recently-signed Cam Newton looms as preparing to take over next week. Darnold is on the hook for a fully-guaranteed $18.585 million next year. Here’s guessing the Panthers will again pay part of their quarterback’s salary to start over at the position (Deshaun Watson, perhaps?), like they did this year with the Broncos and Teddy Bridgewater.
Around the AFC
Chiefs’ offense sputtering. The Chiefs’ point totals in the last three games — three, 20 and 13. Kansas City’s defense has improved to help win two of those games, but where is the offense? Quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ yards per pass attempt is a career-low 7.0 yards; he was 8.8, 8.3 and 8.1 in his first three years as a starter. “The last few years, I’ve taken those (deep) shots and they’ve worked,” he said. “I’ve taken those shots and they haven’t worked (as well this year) and we’ve still been able to find ways to score points.” Not lately.
Titans rolling. Tennessee (7-2) has climbed to the top of the AFC with four consecutive wins and each team was a 2020 playoff team (Buffalo, Kansas City, Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Rams). If the Titans can win their home game Sunday over New Orleans, they will join the 2003 Eagles as the only teams to win five consecutive games against opponents that were in the previous year’s postseason.
Jets QB issue. In a blast of four tweets, the Jets’ quarterback situation became confusing. 1. Mike White would start Sunday against Buffalo. 2. Rookie Zach Wilson was scheduled to do “everything” in practice. 3. Joe Flacco would back up White. 4. Coach Robert Saleh said the long-term quarterback decision is “day to day.” Hmm. Wilson was drafted second overall as the centerpiece of the general manager Joe Thomas/Saleh rebuilding project. But good for White, who is 26 and a free agent after the season.
Cleveland’s rare feat. In last week’s win at Cincinnati, the Browns became the first team in 54 years to have a touchdown catch, rush and interception return of at least 60 yards — Donovan Peoples-Jones (60-yard catch), Nick Chubb (70-yard run) and Denzel Ward (99-yard interception).