Essentials – Week 4

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Miami at New England (-7/48.5), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Dolphins have a chance to go up three games on the Patriots in the AFC East inside the first month with a victory here, joining on the Rams in establishing that large a lead. With the offense routinely breaking off chunk yardage via speed and a few perfectly executed gadget plays that have paid off handsomely, the Patriots have to be concerned coming off last Sunday night’s disaster where they looked slow and disjointed. Pats safety Patrick Chung and defensive end Trey Flowers are both expected to play, which should give the defense teeth it didn’t have in Detroit.

Tackle Marcus Cannon should also play to help give Tom Brady more time to operate, but it remains to be seen if Josh Gordon will be able to improve a mediocre receiving corps due to Julian Edelman’s absence since he’s still learning the offense and working his way back from the hamstring injury that contributed to the Browns cutting him loose. The Patriots had just 209 yards of total offense against the Lions but will have Rob Gronkowski out there despite an ankle issue that’s been bugging him for the last week-plus. New England has an eight-game winning streak working and Miami hasn’t won in Foxborough since 2009, so history is playing a role in this spread. It was colder overnight than the Dolphins have grown used to in sunny South Florida, but conditions for the game will be ideal with highs in the low 70s. In other words, bitter cold won’t be a built-in advantage for New England this early in the season.

Houston at Indianapolis (PK/48), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck have only resembled their best pre-injury versions in occasional flashes as both appear to be laboring. Luck’s arm is healthy enough to get things done in front of him but he struggles to stretch the field. That contributed to 209 yards of total offense in the loss to Philly as Luck managed a minuscule 4.9 yards per completion. He won’t have tight end Jack Doyle as a weapon to lean on but will have his offensive line healthier than it has been this season. Luck came up one pass short of pulling off an upset of defending champion Philly, so whoever wins this duel is going to feel like October offers countless possibilities. The world won’t feel quite as conquerable for the loser here, especially if it’s Houston remaining winless.

Watson is moving around better but accuracy remains an issue. Throwing a last-gasp “meaningless” TD pass in last week’s loss to the Giants not only delivered the ‘over,’ but helped his offense see that he’s out there battling and trying to figure things out. Guard Senio Kelemete couldn’t go last week due to knee pain and is a game-time decision. A receiving corps that has been dealing with hamstring issues is getting healthier, so DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Sammie Coates should be more productive and rookie Keke Coutee finally gets a chance to make an impact. Houston has lost 14 of 16 in Indianapolis against its AFC South rival and has dropped 10 straight outright. The Texans haven’t even covered a spread since Nov. 27 of last season, .

Cincinnati at Atlanta (-4/53), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Even though he’s reportedly close to returning, Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (knee) isn’t ready to so today, so Tevin Coleman will again get the work. Despite losing to New Orleans in OT, last week’s developments were largely positive since Matt Ryan threw five touchdowns and found himself a shiny new weapon in Calvin Ridley. Steve Sarkisian hasn’t gotten a lot right since being hired to run the Falcons offense but last week’s work was impressive. Ridley’s emergence means the Bengals can’t key in on Julio Jones, so expect the Falcons to build on a run of nine touchdowns over the past two games.

Cincinnati is seeing Todd Boyd emerge in similar fashion as Andy Dalton has utilized the respect A.J Green commands as a weapon to get him and speedy John Ross more touches. Green came off the injury report after dealing with groin soreness earlier in the week, while Dre Kirkpatrick will also be in the mix after overcoming back pain and is looking forward to reuniting with fellow ‘Bama products and former teammate Mohamed Sanu, calling this matchup “personal.” Linebacker Preston Brown is also back, while Atlanta will have pass rusher Takk McKinley back. The Falcons’ attrition on defense has been well-documented and now includes DE Derrick Shelby (groin) and Justin Bethel (knee) missing games since neither will participate here.

Buffalo at Green Bay (-9.5/44) 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This game features banged-up superstars playing to their strengths in order to help their teams avoid disastrous starts. LeSean McCoy is suffering from cracked ribs and has been limited in practice but should play, splitting carries with Chris Ivory. Aaron Rodgers will take every snap he needs to but isn’t doing much moving around on his injured knee. The Packers couldn’t get out of their own way in Landover last week, losing to the ‘Skins due to a drop epidemic from Rodgers’ receiving corps and a defense that got pushed around all day. The injury news isn’t great either since Bryan Bulaga (back) is a game-time decision and guard Justin McGray (shoulder) has been ruled out, which means Rodgers will have to deal with suspect offensive line play. That’s nothing new but disconcerting since the franchise isn’t moving fluidly. The expectation is Bulaga will play to give an offensive line that has already surrendered 12 sacks a fighting chance to block the disruptive Bills’ defensive front. Buffalo excelled in harassing Vikings QB Kirk Cousins into miscues and will have Shaq Lawson and Trent Murphy on board to help make life difficult for Rodgers on a day where the hope is the rain will stay away.

Rookie Josh Allen delivered at a high level in his first career start, executing a game plan that was designed to take advantage of Minnesota being aggressive and underestimating his poise. He’s still going to have the element of surprise at his disposal here, but it remains to be seen whether last week was a fluke or if he’s capable of accurately hitting his mark and applying touch to his passes, both big concerns. The Packers won’t be as stacked defensively as they’ve been, having lost DT Muhammad Wilkerson to IR last week and potentially missing LB Nick Perry, CB Kevin King and safety Josh Jones.

Detroit at Dallas (-3/44), 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Jason Garrett looks more and more like a lame-duck coach by the quarter. Despite averaging six yards per carry, the Cowboys’ offense has been anemic. Dax Prescott has already been sacked five times in a game twice this season, something that happened to him only once in his first two years under center. That reflects poorly on the suspect offensive line, but don’t lose sight of the fact receivers have struggled to get open, forcing Prescott to hold it longer. Cole Beasley will shake off an ankle injury to play today, but there hasn’t been much to get excited about from a group that badly needs someone like rookie Michael Gallup to take off.

Rookie Kerryon Johnson was a spark plug for the Lions last Sunday night, becoming the first Lions running back in 70 games to top the 100-yard mark, snapping a streak that dates back to Thanksgiving 2013. He’s capable of catching the ball out of the backfield, but the presence of Theo Riddick and LeGarrette Blount means the Auburn product won’t take the job full-time but certainly serves to upgrade the position. Matthew Stafford should be able to take advantage here and benefits from not having to match wits with standout Cowboys LB Sean Lee, who has long been the lynchpin of the Dallas defense. He’s out 2-4 weeks due to a bum hamstring, so the Lions have an opportunity to win outright and get back to .500 after suffering demoralizing losses to the Jets and 49ers.

N.Y. Jets at Jacksonville (-7/39) 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Jags RB Leonard Fournette has been a full participant in practice this week and will return to at least split carries with T.J. Yeldon. After not throwing the ball downfield against Tennessee following a breakout game against New England, Blake Bortles is counting on Fournette’s return to loosen up the Jets defense so he can take some shots against their secondary, which comes in vulnerable since safeties Doug Middleton and Marcus Maye are nursing injuries and CB Buster Skrine is working his way back from a knee injury suffered against the Browns.

Speaking of which, there are probably some bruised egos to deal with if you’re New York’s defense, getting picked apart by a rookie coming in cold off the bench. Maybe that’s why Jets safety Jamal Adams was so quick to admit that the staff hadn’t prepared players to contend with Mayfield, focusing solely on Tyrod Taylor. Rookie Sam Darold will be facing a Jags defense that comes in close to full strength, but the absence of rookie corner D.J. Hayden was felt against Tennessee and could factor in a once again. Temperatures on the field will feel like they’re in the high 90s, so conditioning and stamina over four quarters should be major factors.

Tampa Bay at Chicago (-3/46.5), 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Mitchell Trubisky has been the subject of criticism since the Bears had a tougher time than they should’ve against overmatched Arizona due to how many plays last year’s first-round pick left out on the field. It’s too early to call for Chase Daniel, especially given how vital Trubisky’s development is for the future of the franchise, but an offensive mind like Matt Nagy doesn’t want his defense to do the heavy lifting in carrying the Bears into contention even though they’re definitely equipped to. In this one, Chicago needs to produce offense to pull off a win since corners Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper will be sidelined by hamstring injuries.

That’s good news for Ryan Fitzpatrick as he looks to stretch his NFL-record streak of 400-yard passing game to four. He’s getting the nod ahead of Jameis Winston, though Tampa Bay isn’t publicly admitting it. The Bucs are hoping that Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin continue to create explosive pass plays, but the offensive line will need to buy time for plays to develop downfield, so count on an interesting chess match there. Tampa Bay will see first-round pick Vita Vea, a powerful defensive tackle, make his debut after missing most of the preseason with a calf injury. Be advised that it’s expected to rain most of the day in Chicago but the forecast is that large portions of this game should be unaffected.

Philadelphia (-3/41) at Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Titans have given up just 50 points over their first three games and should give Carson Wentz some trouble with their aggressive schemes. The presence of new head coach Mike Vrabel and coordinator Dean Pees has immediately impacted the defense they’re playing in Nashville since the new coaching staff is making good use of all their athleticism. LB Kemalei Correa and safety Kendrick Lewis are going to play, so the unit will be at full strength.

Philly’s offensive line surrendered five sacks of Wentz in his debut against the Colts. Wentz’s debut was rocky all the way around, but he did find a new tight end to mold in rookie Dallas Goedert, getting him his first pro touchdown. He also engineered a go-ahead scoring drive in the fourth, making it a wildly successful debut, albeit bumpy. A virus going around the Eagles facility may keep Alshon Jeffery from making his return. Marcus Mariota’s elbow prevents him from throwing much, but he’s still able to move the offense by using his legs and making solid reads in running the spread option alongside Derrick Henry , who has been quiet of late. Philly will have its bellcow, RB Jay Ajayi, back to anchor a ground attack that also has Corey Clement available but will again be missing versatile veteran Darren Sproles. If Mariota is unable to finish for any reason, newly acquired Austin Davis will take over.

Seattle (-3/40) at Arizona, 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The Seahawks earned their first win of the season against Dallas by utilizing Russell Wilson’s ingenuity, a strong running game and a stifling defense that grows empowered by a blissfully conspiratorial 12th Man. Same recipe, new faces. Chris Carson can be this team’s Marshawn Lynch if he stays healthy and Earl Thomas can guide this group as long as he’s still in town. It was easy to be engaged last week against his hometown Cowboys that he wanted to be traded to. We’ll see whether winless Arizona warrants the same intensity. Linebacker K.J. Wright is out again and pass rusher Dion Jordan is questionable, but the Seahawks are otherwise pretty healthy on both sides of the ball.

Seattle hopes to make Josh Rosen’s starting debut as forgettable as the Bears made his first appearance, which came in crunch time in relief of an ineffective Sam Bradford. Chicago came after him relentlessly and Rosen didn’t handle it well, so we’ll see how he fares with a full week of normal reps and preparation with the knowledge he’d be starting. Tackle Andre Smith is a game-time decision while WR Larry Fitzgerald should be available to help play safety valve despite not being 100 percent. The Cards are going to need their defensive front to play a large role here and expect Robert Nkemdiche, Corey Peters and Olsen Pierre to be available despite being listed as questionable.

Cleveland at Oakland (-3/44.5), 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The Raiders haven’t been able to establish a pass rush since trading Khalil Mack and have ran out of gas in the second half of games. Oakland has been outscored 37-3 in the fourth quarter of its three losses this season and have been unable to cover when it counts or move the ball effectively. Part of the issue is the continued lack of chemistry between Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, who haven’t grown like they were expected to. Tackle Donald Penn, who has been in concussion protocol, has been cleared and will play, but the Raiders have major concerns in the secondary since they’ve been victimized by big plays and will again be missing suspended corner Daryl Worley, serving the last of a four-game suspension. Safety Karl Joseph won’t play due to a hamstring, which is the same issue rendering veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie a game-time decision.

The Browns are looking to build off their first win in years and made the right choice in sticking with rookie Baker Mayfield after he delivered the goods when Tyrod Taylor got banged up. This will be his first road start, but anyone who has watched him work in college or in his brief pro career can assure you that he won’t be rattled by the Black Hole or Jon Gruden’s sideline glares. If he gets comfortable, the Browns could win outright in order to improve to 4-0 ATS. Taylor will be available to back up Mayfield, while the defense will be bolstered by the availability of safety Jabrill Peppers and LBs Christian Kirksey and Emmanuel Ogbah.

San Francisco at L.A. Chargers (-10/46), 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: After a tough 35-23 loss in the “Battle for L.A.” at the Coliseum saw them get outclassed, the Chargers again look to prove they’re a resilient group under Anthony Lynn. After last season’s near-misses, they rallied to nearly make the playoffs, so this year’s group will look to try and build on a favorable schedule over the next four weeks that will see them at “home” in Carson. While the advantage may not be meaningful – there will likely be more 49ers fans in the house today and more Raiders fans next week – not facing an undefeated league power should aid the cause considering their losses have come against the Chiefs and Rams. Keenan Allen will play through knee pain after not practicing most of the week, while Travis Benjamin (foot) will join the receiving corps for the first time. Up front, tackle Joe Barksdale (knee) won’t play but counterpart Russell Okung will.

San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss in Kansas City and is done for the season. He was off to a rough start, but considering how much of an investment the 49ers made to get his services, this is a disaster. The tune 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is singing is ‘next man up,’ which is really all he can do but sounds hollow given how committed his offense was to Jimmy G. Beathard played at Iowa and had some nice moments last season but looked best suited for a backup role. We’ll see what he does with this opportunity. With Matt Breida and Alfred Morris both cleared to participate after knee injuries, Beathard will have his ground game to help ease him in.

New Orleans (-3/53) at N.Y. Giants, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Drew Brees reconnected with Cameron Meredith, who is now ready to contribute after getting back to full strength from being limited most of the preseason. That gives the Saints yet another option in addition to Mark Ingram, who is serving out the last of a four-game suspension. The loaded Saints have been dominating through force-feeding Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas but will now be able to spread the ball around even more, which should make Brees even more formidable. Since the defense has looked so suspect in losing to Tampa and hanging on for tight wins against Cleveland and Atlanta, another shootout is expected here.

The Giants won't have Olivier Vernon to help rush Wade and corner Eli Apple is set to miss another game, but DT Damon "Snacks" Harrison and LB Connor Barwin will play through knee injuries. The new-look offensive line got a game together last week and helped give Eli Manning a chance to get his key playmakers involved, Saquon Barkley has already shown he can break one whenever he touches the ball, while receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Sterling Shephard should be able to take advantage as Barkley becomes more consistent.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-3/51), 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC: The Steelers have been carved up by opposing QBs and rank 28th in pass defense since Patrick Mahomes and Ryan Fitzpatrick each had big games against their zone coverage. You can stretch the field on them, which gives Joe Flacco an opportunity to continue his impressive start. Even Cleveland’s offensive success in Week 1 came on passes over the top to ultimately force OT. The Ravens have scored touchdowns the first 12 times they reached the red zone, becoming the first NFL team to ever do so. The addition of TE Hayden Hurst, who debuts after dealing with a foot issue, provides another big target that Flacco can utilize in the end zone.

The Steelers aren’t far behind Baltimore, ranking third in red-zone efficiency despite Le’Veon Bell sitting out, which is a credit to the team’s offensive line. Tackle Marcus Gilbert and guard David DeCastro have been banged up with nagging injuries but have been cleared to participate. JuJu Smith-Schuster, dealing with an abdominal strain, will play and make life easier for James Conner as he continues to fill in for the absent Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers have won its last 13 night games and is 10-0-1 against the AFC North. Baltimore has dropped 24 of the last 33 in Pittsburgh.

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