Cover 3: Why Halloween Should Provide More Thrills Than a Historically One-Sided Week 7
We warned you. With a dearth of compelling matchups last week, we suspected there could be a chance for some lopsided games.
However, no one could’ve predicted just how many games would be so one-sided.
Of last Sunday’s 11 games, only the Atlanta Falcons-Miami Dolphins contest was decided by one possession, making this the first time there was one game (or none) decided by a single possession on a day with at least 10 games since Dec. 21, 1975.
Even with the bookend games of the week – the Cleveland Browns’ three-point win over the Denver Broncos last Thursday along with the New Orleans Saints beating the Seattle Seahawks by a field goal on Monday – the average margin of victory in Week 7 was 17.38 points!
Think about that for a minute – the average point differential was two touchdowns and a field goal. It’s been seven years since we’ve had a week with such a disparity in scoring.
Despite all the blowouts, we’re guessing you still watched. It’s an NFL Sunday after all, and although we’ve been blessed with an 18th week, you got to make the most of these precious opportunities to embrace in the warmth that is professional football.
For instance, this Sunday it’s Halloween. You planning on taking your kids trick or treating? No, you’ll park yourself in front of your TV and put some candy in a dish on your front porch with a sign that says “Please take one” so you won’t be disturbed watching football.
But what games should you watch? Using our watchability index, which gives matchups a rating based on their interesting subplots, star power and high probability of being competitive, here’s a breakdown of what should be the best games of the weekend.
Tennessee Titans vs. Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS)
Line: Colts by 1.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Colts 54%
Reasons to watch: It’s the final matchup of the season between the only two AFC South teams actually trying to win the division, and more importantly, as an early game it shouldn’t interfere with too many Halloween festivities. The Titans are in first place while the Colts have moved into second having won three of four following an 0-3 start. For Indianapolis to keep any realistic hope of a division crown alive, it must win this one. Tennessee pulled away for a 25-16 victory over the Colts in Week 3, so another Titans win would give them a three-game lead over Indy plus the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Tennessee asserted itself as one of the conference’s top contenders with victories in the last two weeks over the two teams that took the field in last season’s AFC championship game – the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. Indianapolis’ wins aren’t nearly as impressive with victories coming over a pair of one-win teams – the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans – and the two-win San Francisco 49ers. The Colts, though, have been competitive in their last three losses – all against formidable opponents – losing by three points to the Los Angeles Rams, trailing by just a point in the fourth quarter to the Titans before ultimately losing and falling in overtime to the Baltimore Ravens following an incredible comeback spurred by a Herculean performance by Lamar Jackson.
This matchup also features the league’s top two rushers in Derrick Henry, whose 869 yards are nearly 300 more than runner-up Jonathan Taylor’s 579. Taylor has run for at least 100 yards in each of the last two games while carrying the ball fewer than 20 times in each. Only one other Colt in the Super Bowl era has had consecutive 100-yard rushing games on fewer than 20 carries and that was Marshall Faulk in 1997.
Henry, meanwhile, had his five-game streak of 100-yard rushing performances end last week when he ran for 86 yards. He rushed for 113 yards in last month’s matchup with the Colts, marking his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game against Indy. In Tennessee franchise history, there is only one longer streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing games against a single opponent, and that is Hall of Famer Earl Campbell’s six-game streak against the Cincinnati Bengals from 1978-1981.
Key matchup: Carson Wentz vs. Titans’ Defense
One of the biggest reasons the Colts have a chance to move within a game of the Titans for the division lead has been the steady play of Wentz. Since struggling while playing on two sprained ankles in the Week 3 loss at Tennessee, Wentz has thrown two touchdowns without an interception in each of the last four games – the longest single-season streak of consecutive games with multiple TD passes without a pick in the Super Bowl era for a Colts QB. Since Week 4, Wentz ranks third in passer rating (119.5), fourth in yards per attempt (8.88) and his 11 pass plays of 25 or more yards are tied with Matthew Stafford for third most.
After missing significant time in the preseason due to left foot surgery and landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Wentz is looking more and more comfortable in the offense and able to make plays while under duress.
Carson Wentz While Under Pressure, Weeks 1-3 vs. Weeks 4-7
(Min. 10 attempts in each split)
Category Week 1-3 Week 1-3 Rank Week 4-7 Week 4-7 Rank Completion Percentage 56.4 – 72.4 2nd Well-Thrown Percentage 64.1 8th Worst 72.4 – Average Air Yards 6.87 7th Worst 13.45 4th Catchability Percentage 69.2 – 82.8 1st
Building on that success won’t be easy for Wentz as he now faces a Titans team that leads the league with 59 QB pressures since its three-game winning streak began in Week 5. In that time, Harold Landry III is tied with the Texans’ Jonathan Greenard for the NFL lead with five sacks, while Denico Autry’s six QB knockdowns are tied with five others for second most.
Tennessee completely flummoxed Patrick Mahomes last week, sacking him four times while forcing the former MVP into throwing the ball away. In plays under pressure, Mahomes had a well-thrown percentage of 42.9 and averaged 3.57 air yards (the NFL averages are 78.3 and 8.28, respectively).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints (Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX)
Line: Buccaneers by 4.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Buccaneers 56%
Reasons to watch: Right smackdab in the middle of the prime window for trick or treating, this is a matchup between the NFC South’s top two teams. The first-place Buccaneers look every bit capable of pulling off a Super Bowl repeat, pushing their winning streak to four games with last week’s 38-3 mauling of the Chicago Bears – a game that was over by the end of the first quarter. Tampa Bay set franchise records for points in a first quarter (21) and first half (35), which are also the most scored by any NFL team this season. Tom Brady had a rather pedestrian performance, completing 55.6% of his passes and a season-low 5.86 yards per attempt – but still managed to throw four more TD passes to give him 21 on the season – two more than Stafford for the most in the NFL.
The Saints haven’t been nearly as flashy as the Bucs, but they are still one of just six NFC teams with a winning record. The biggest positive right now for New Orleans is the team is getting closer to full strength. Wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith made his season debut in Monday’s win at Seattle after starting the season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, and although he and Jameis Winston weren’t in sync, their chemistry should grow with each week. Defensively, edge rusher Marcus Davenport came off IR ahead of Monday’s game after getting hurt in the season opener, and lineman David Onyemata returns this week from a six-game suspension for a banned substance.
Key matchup: Saints’ Rush Offense vs. Buccaneers’ Rush Defense
The Saints like to run. A lot. Keeping the ball on the ground on 53.0% of their offensive plays, New Orleans is the league’s only team running the ball more than half the time. With 528 passing yards through the air, New Orleans beats out only Chicago’s 449 for fewest in the NFL. Tampa Bay’s 1,170 air passing yards, meanwhile, are the most in the league.
It makes sense when you have a workhorse back like Alvin Kamara and an unproven Jameis Winston at quarterback to keep the ball out of the air, but despite the decision to lean on the ground game, the Saints haven’t been overly successful with it. They’re gaining 4 or more yards on 42.2% of their runs – the 10th-lowest rate in the NFL – and their 15 rushing plays of 10 or more yards are tied with the Los Angeles Chargers for eighth fewest. They are gaining at least 10 yards on 8.0% of their running plays and only the Las Vegas Raiders and Houston Texans have a lower percentage of running plays going for 10 or more yards.
Even on downs that are seemingly obvious passing situations, the Saints are bucking conventional wisdom and running the ball.
In a matchup with a Tampa Bay defense that is stingy against the run, the question is will Sean Payton keep the ball in the hands of Kamara and Mark Ingram, who begins his second stint with the Saints after being acquired from the Houston Texans on Wednesday. The Bucs are third in the NFL in opponent rushing average at 3.72 yards per attempt and are allowing 0.572 yards under expected per rush attempt, which ranks fourth in the league.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC)
Line: Cowboys by 2.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Cowboys 63%
Reasons to watch: If you did have to leave the house for any reason to fulfil any trick or treating obligations, make sure you’re back home for this game. We’ve projected this one as the second-most watchable game of the season behind only the highly entertaining and drama-filled season opener between Dallas and Tampa Bay. Both the Cowboys and Vikings are coming off a bye so should be well-rested, and we expect a high-scoring shootout. Though, truth be told, we also never know what exactly to expect from the Vikings. One week they look like a legitimate contender and the next they look they’re in the running for a high draft pick.
Minnesota gave the Arizona Cardinals their biggest scare prior to their first loss of the season Thursday night and has scored 30 or more points in half of its six games. However, it also managed just seven points and 255 total yards of offense in a Week 4 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Vikings followed that up by needing a 54-yard field goal on the final play of the game to escape with a two-point home victory over the winless Detroit Lions. Seven days after that, with Dalvin Cook back in the lineup, the offense racked up 571 total yards of offense – the Vikings’ most since 2004 – in an overtime win over the Carolina Panthers. Cook rushed for a season-high 140 yards against the Panthers and should be in good shape for this one after having an extra week to treat an ankle sprain that sidelined him for Week 5.
While Minnesota’s offense has been inconsistent, Dallas’ has been nearly unstoppable. In their last four games, the Cowboys have compiled 156 points and 1,895 total yards, making it just the second time in franchise history they’ve had at least 150 points and 1,800 yards in a four-game stretch (the other was in 1966). Overall, the Cowboys rank first in yards per play (6.58), first in percent of first down-plays gaining 4 or more yards (60.9%) and second in scoring efficiency (51.5) – tallying points on 34 of their 66 offensive drives. Dak Prescott comes into this one having thrown at least three touchdown passes in each of his last four games, something no Dallas QB had ever done before.
Key matchup: Justin Jefferson vs. Trevon Diggs
Jefferson has emerged as one of the league’s most dangerous wideouts, and Diggs will be tasked with trying to contain him. With eight receptions for 80 yards in Minnesota’s last game, Jefferson now has five or more catches in each game this season. He joins teammate Adam Thielen (2017 and ’18) and Hall of Famer Cris Carter (1997), as the only Vikings to start a season with six consecutive games with at least five receptions. Jefferson is one of the best in the league in winning his one-on-one matchups, achieving a burn percentage of 72.9. Burn percentage calculates when the targeted receiver does his part to achieve a successful play regardless of the quality of throw by the quarterback.
Jefferson has proven to be one of the best at beating his man, and although Diggs has made a name for himself with his ball-hawking prowess, he’s hardly been what you would call a shutdown cornerback. With seven interceptions and two Pick 6s, Diggs has intercepted at least one pass in each of Dallas’ first six games. There’s only been one other player in the Super Bowl era to start a season with at least one interception in his team’s first six games and that was the Vikings’ Brian Russell in 2003.
Despite his knack for making a big play, he’s also been susceptible at surrendering a big play. Targeted on 40 passes this season, Diggs has been on the wrong end of 20 burns, and his burn yards allowed to target average of 12.39 is seventh highest in the NFL among corners with at least 25 targets. Diggs will certainly have his work cut out for him to not only cover Jefferson but also to extend his interception streak as Kirk Cousins has excelled in not throwing passes that should be intercepted.
Among QBs with at least 125 attempts, Cousins’ pickable pass percentage of 1.33 leads the league.
Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Design by Matt Sisneros.