The NFL schedule makers truly are incredible.
Crafting an 18-week schedule that takes into account the already predetermined opponents, the league’s TV broadcast partners, travel and the logistics of other events planned near or even at a team’s stadium – and then churning out a 272-game schedule with marque matchups week after week is absolutely fascinating.
And the schedule makers don’t even get to play with a full deck when constructing it.
For just about half of the 18 weeks, a handful of teams will be on a bye. And this week, we are without four that would be worth tuning in to watch – the Cincinnati Bengals (5-4), New England Patriots (5-4), New York Jets (6-3) and Baltimore Ravens (6-3).
Never before in NFL history have we had four teams with winning records all on a bye during the same week this late into a season.
While your immediate reaction might be “we’re getting jipped,” don’t let the fact we’re without four teams with playoff aspirations get you down. We still have some stellar matchups, and we can deduce which ones will provide the most excitement with some assistance.
SmartRatings is an AI-based platform that provides excitement ratings for sporting events, teams and players. The excitement scale, ranging from 0-100, is powered by complex algorithms that are predicated upon six primary variables: pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context and social buzz.
The weight of each variable is dynamic and adapts as a season progresses. The excitement scale translates to the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game), 85-100 (Great Game).
So here’s a look at what we deem to be the best matchups, and it begins bright and early Sunday morning and continues throughout the day.
Again, the schedule makers are wonders.
Seattle Seahawks (6-3) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5) in Germany, Sunday, 9:30 a.m. ET
- SmartRating: 69
- Win Probability: Buccaneers 72%
- Key Matchup: Kenneth Walker III vs. Tampa Bay’s rush defense
Like The Beatles playing their first shows in America in 1964 or Michael Jordan and the Dream Team descending on Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics, the country of Germany welcomes another larger-than-life figure this weekend. Maybe Tom Brady and the Buccaneers playing a Week 10 game in Munich isn’t quite on the same level as Beatlemania or the Dream Team, but tickets are reportedly being sold for around $2,000 for the first regular-season game in Germany.
There were approximately 3,000,000 ticket applications submitted for the game, and those lucky enough to get in will watch a pair of teams that enter Week 10 in first place.
Few could’ve predicted the Seahawks would have a 1.5-game lead atop the NFC West at this point, and probably even fewer would’ve thought the Bucs would be arriving in Germany with a losing record, but that’s good enough to put them in the driver’s seat in the downtrodden NFC South, owning the tiebreaker over the Atlanta Falcons.
This will be Brady’s fourth international game after leading the Patriots to wins in London in 2009 and 2012 and another in Mexico City in 2017 while compiling a 125.2 quarterback rating with 952 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Brady, however, has the same number of TD passes through three times the number of games this season.
While Brady has put up very unBrady-like numbers, it’s not completely his fault. The Bucs have been decimated by injuries at the wide receiver position and those wideouts suiting up haven’t given him the most help, dropping 22 passes – the most drops thrown by any quarterback this season.
That hasn’t been an issue for his counterpart with the Seahawks, and that’s part of the reason why Seattle is riding a four-game winning streak.
Geno Smith leads the NFL in completion percentage at 73.1, ranks third in QB rating at 107.2 and his receivers have only dropped six of his passes – tied with the Falcons’ Marcus Mariota for the fewest in the league by QB that has started all his team’s games.
As good as Smith has been, Kenneth Walker III and the ground game have made life much easier for the journeyman quarterback.
Since Rashaad Penny suffered a broken fibula in his lower left leg in a 39-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 5, Walker has done an exceptional job at filling in, rushing for 424 yards (third in the league) with an NFL-best six rushing TDs. His 14 runs of 10 yards or more are also the most by a running back since Week 6.
Although Walker, who ran for 109 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 31-21 win at Arizona, has shown a proficiency for reeling off a big run, the rookie has also been just about as likely to be taken down for a loss. In the last four weeks, no player has been stuffed behind the line of scrimmage more than Walker’s 12.
Over that same time span, Tampa Bay has been the league’s best team at tackling the opposition behind the line of scrimmage, compiling a 12.4% stuff rate. The Bucs’ success against the run starts up front with William Gholston winning 51.6% of his 1-on-1 matchups. The NFL average for interior linemen against the run is 49.03.
While opposing defenses are keying in on trying to stop Walker, Smith has been able to take advantage of them biting on the handoff. Smith was effective running the play action with Penny in the backfield, but he’s been even better since Walker became next man up.
In the last three weeks, Seattle is running play action on 15.1% of its play calls – up from 11.0% in the season’s first six weeks – and is gaining an average of 8.59 yards per play when running play action this season. Tampa Bay, however, has been stout with snuffing out the play action, limiting the opposition to an average of 6.35 yards on such plays, while the league average sits at 9.06.
The Bucs are coming off an impressive defensive showing in last Sunday’s thrilling 16-13 comeback win over the Los Angeles Rams, limiting the defending Super Bowl champions to 206 total yards to snap a three-game skid. On the season, the Bucs rank fifth in the NFL in defensive EVE, allowing 0.688 fewer yards per play than the expected amount.
While the defense stepped up for a possibly season-saving win against the Rams, they once again failed to force a turnover. After being tied for third in the NFL with nine takeaways through Week 4, Tampa Bay has gone five straight games without forcing a turnover – the second-longest streak in the Super Bowl era behind a six-gamer by the San Francisco 49ers in 2018.
As good as the Seahawks have been this season, they’ve been a bit careless with the ball, turning it over at least once in all nine games. They already have 12 giveaways on the season after tying for the league low with 13 turnovers all of last season.
Minnesota Vikings (7-1) at Buffalo Bills (6-2), Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
- SmartRating: 57
- Win Probability: Bills 58%
- Key Matchup: Dalvin Cook vs. Buffalo’s rush defense
Although this matchup could be losing some of its panache if Josh Allen is unable to play, Allen’s absence could also make this a much more competitive game if the Bills are forced to play without their star quarterback.
With nine weeks down and nine weeks to go, we have officially reached the halfway point of the season. And at this point, one team is a virtual lock to win its division. It’s not a Kansas City Chiefs team that has won the last six AFC West crowns or a Philadelphia Eagles team that’s undefeated.
No, that distinction goes to the Vikings, who have a 4.5-game lead atop the NFC North and a 99.0% chance of winning the division, according to our projection models. (The Eagles have the next-highest probability at 94.8%, followed by the Chiefs at 84.4%).
While the Vikings roll into Week 10 riding a six-game winning streak, they haven’t looked overly dominant in that stretch. They eked out a 20-17 win over the Washington Commanders last Sunday and have won their last six by four, three, seven, eight, eight and three points. That’s tied for the second-longest stretch of one-possession wins in NFL history behind a seven-game streak by the Chiefs in 2020. The Vikings have also compiled those wins while facing the second-easiest schedule over that span with their opponents sporting a .396 winning percentage.
That’s about to change, as Minnesota has the sixth-toughest strength of schedule through the rest of the calendar year – and the toughest by any team currently with a winning record. And that stretch begins with a Bills team that currently owns the tiebreaker with the Chiefs for the top seed in the AFC.
Buffalo, however, may be missing a fairly big piece of its offensive machine with Allen dealing with an injury to his throwing elbow. He was injured late in last Sunday’s stunning 20-17 loss to the Jets, and if he can’t play, backup Case Keenum would be handed the keys to the top-ranked offense.
Keenum has thrown all of seven passes this season and has made two starts in the last three seasons combined. His best year came in 2017 with the Vikings, going 11-3 as a starter and helping the team capture an improbable 29-24 win over the Saints in the NFC divisional round of the playoffs, connecting with current Buffalo teammate Stefon Diggs for a 61-yard touchdown as the final seconds clicked off the clock.
Since Allen’s 2018 rookie season, Buffalo is 1-4 in games he doesn’t start, and while that doesn’t sound too encouraging from a Bills perspective, Buffalo is much more than just a one-man team.
Buffalo boasts the league’s top-ranked defense at 14.8 points allowed per game and had the No. 1 rushing defense through the first seven weeks of the season, yielding 76.2 yards per game. In the last two games, however, the Bills were completely gashed on the ground, surrendering a total of 382 rushing yards – just 75 fewer yards than their first six games combined.
Now they’ll have to try to contain Dalvin Cook, whose 76.0 rushing yards per game ranks seventh in the league.
Cook has been playing some of his best football recently, averaging 100.3 scrimmage yards with five touchdowns in the last four weeks after averaging 81.5 scrimmage yards with one score through the first four games. Part of the problem with trying to corral Cook is he’s able to make plays even when the defense plugs the holes at the line of scrimmage.
On plays in which a defender wins his matchup against a specific blocker and is able to defend multiple gaps successfully, Cook is averaging 3.86 yards per carry – the third-highest rate among the 34 running backs with at least 75 attempts.
The Vikings are also succeeding in rushing the ball when the defense is expecting it. As a team, Minnesota averages 1.033 yards more than expected on rushing plays in situations when a run is expected – the seventh-highest rate in the league.
Despite their subpar showings against the run in the last two weeks, the Bills still rank eighth in defensive EVE against the run, allowing 0.194 fewer yards than expected on rushing plays.
Von Miller continues to be a force at the line of scrimmage and show why the Bills signed him to a hefty contract in the offseason. The eight-time Pro Bowler is winning 63.0% of his 1-on-1 matchups in run defense, while the league average for edge rushers is 42.8%. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver, meanwhile, is winning 70% of his 1-on-1s while the league average for his position is 49.0%.
Dallas Cowboys (6-2) at Green Bay Packers (3-6), Sunday, 3:25 p.m. ET
- SmartRating: 66
- Win Probability: Cowboys 59%
- Key Matchup: Micah Parsons vs. David Bakhtiari
A Cowboys-Packers matchup evokes visions of The Ice Bowl, Lombardi, Landry, Favre and Aikman. They are two of the NFL’s proudest franchises, both winning their division last season and backed by massive fanbases. Add it all up and it’s no wonder why this game at historic Lambeau Field was earmarked as the game of the week in the late afternoon TV timeslot – even if one of the teams is in a colossal tailspin.
The Packers are in the midst of their longest losing streak since 2008 – Aaron Rodgers’ first season as Green Bay’s starting quarterback – and are in danger of losing six straight games for the first time since 1988, when they lost a franchise record-tying seven in a row.
Rodgers’ play this past Sunday against the Detroit Lions was alarming, as the two-time reigning league MVP threw interceptions in the end zone on Green Bay’s first two possessions. He threw another pick in the third quarter to match a career worst for a single game, and then ended the day with four straight incomplete passes…in the red zone…in the final minute…in a 15-9 loss.
That performance came against a Detroit team that ranks last in the NFL in scoring defense and total defense. While the Packers have looked dysfunctional, the Cowboys look like contenders.
Dallas, which should be rested after having its bye following a 49-29 win over the Chicago Bears in Week 8, ranks third in scoring defense, allowing an average of 16.6 points per game – which is just about what Green Bay is averaging during its skid (15.8).
The Cowboys lead the league with 33 sacks, and the 38-year-old Rodgers has done a good job of staying upright in the pocket, as his sack rate of 5.37 per 100 pass plays is ninth lowest among QBs with at least 200 attempts.
The Packers offensive line has taken a lot of heat this season for shortcomings from Rodgers and the passing game, but overall, they’ve been solid, as their pressure rate allowed of 33.7 is sixth best in the NFL (the league average is 38.8).
Nothing will be easy this Sunday, however, with Dallas’ pressure rate of 43.0 ranking fifth best. Micah Parsons is obviously one of the biggest reasons for the Cowboys’ success, as his pressure rate of 30.6 is the best among all edge rushers with at least 50 pass rushes. He also ranks fourth in adjusted sack rate at 8.3. The NFL average for edge rushers in adjusted sack rate is 3.4, and average for pressure rate is 16.4.
Parsons, who ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks with eight and sixth in QB hurries with 26.5, lines up everywhere and will have plenty of matchups with five-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari.
Despite being dogged by an ailing knee that has undergone multiple surgeries, Bakhtiari has played at an elite level – when he’s on the field. He missed the first two games in his recovery, then was a surprise inactive in Week 7, and he also had to come out for a bit last week.
He may not be at full strength, but he’s still one of the best at his position. He’s yet to allow a sack, has an adjusted sack-allowed percentage of 1.0 and a pressure rate allowed percentage of 5.9. The NFL average for adjusted sack-allowed percentage for all tackles is 1.7, while the pressure rate allowed percentage average is 8.8.
There’s a steep drop-off in production for right tackle Yosh Nijman should Parsons line up over him, as he has a pressure rate allowed percentage of 9.3.
Rodgers has tormented the Cowboys over the last dozen years, winning seven of the last eight matchups while throwing for 15 touchdowns and compiling a 104.5 QB rating. If Dallas can put ample pressure on the four-time league MVP, the Cowboys should be able to end a three-game losing streak to Green Bay while continuing the downward spiral of a season for Rodgers and the Packers.
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