It’s always interesting coming up with bold predictions for a slate of games that doesn’t include one matchup each week, because of those ultra-corporate Thursday night slugfests. And yet if this week’s Thursday night game proved anything, when the San Diego Chargers beat the Denver Broncos by finally not relinquishing a fourth-quarter lead, it’s that the wacky can happen in the NFL when the smallest of warning signs exist.
On that note, here are 10 bold predictions for this weekend’s slate of games:
The Seattle Seahawks beat the Atlanta Falcons by three scores
The Falcons are rolling, silencing haters, turning doubters into believers and all that fun stuff. A big win against Denver has their spirits high, and that’s half the problem. Few teams are better at giving reality checks than the Seahawks, who have had two weeks to prepare. Seattle had a sluggish start to the season on offense, but so much of that came back to health issues to crucial players such as Russell Wilson, Jimmy Graham, Tyler Lockett and Germain Ifedi. The bye week came at a perfect time to get all of those players near 100 percent, which means bad things for an Atlanta defense that might be cocky after shutting the Broncos down to 16 points.
The Carolina Panthers pile up 250 rushing yards in a blowout win against the New Orleans Saints
This would be not be at all bold in 2015, but this year has been like a warped reality for the defending NFC champions. At 1-4 and coming off an ugly home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it looks like the Panthers should be in trouble heading on the road against a divisional rival that has had two weeks to prepare. And, yes, Drew Brees should be on his A-game as he often is in these moments. But New Orleans has been ultra susceptible to the run this season, ranking 30th in rushing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). The Panthers have been waiting on that breakout running game this season, and with Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart back and the team hungry to save the season, they take off in ways no other running game has this season.
Cody Kessler leads the Cleveland Browns to their first win by throwing for more than 300 yards
Something has to break right for the Cleveland Browns at some point this season, and the Tennessee Titans could be primed for that kind of surprise. Nothing about a road win against the Miami Dolphins should make the Titans too confident, but you react differently when you’ve won seven games since the San Francisco 49ers played for the NFC title. The Browns’ usually potent running game will struggle with all the injury issues up front, but defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s tips will help Hue Jackson in crafting the kind of passing game plan to get his team to finally come out on top. And Kessler will need to throw for 300 yards because the Browns are a horrendous matchup for DeMarco Murray, Delanie Walker and the Titans offensive line.
Antonio Brown challenges Julio Jones’ 12-catch, 300-yard day by dominating the Miami Dolphins
Sometimes, the Pittsburgh Steelers end up being a little sleepy on offense on the road, but this week won’t be one of them. Warm Miami is a good place right now for this smoking hot offense. When the Dolphins are relatively healthy, they struggle to put up much resistance against opposing No. 1 receivers. Doug Baldwin went for 92 yards and a touchdown. Terrelle Pryor piled up 144 yards in that do-it-all performance. And A.J. Green went off for 173 yards and a score. Add in injuries to Miami’s safeties as well as the receivers around Brown, and this is a matchup that should get crazy very early on.
The Cincinnati Bengals beat the New England Patriots on the road
Imagine the Tom Brady redemption tour hitting this early of a speed bump, especially after how these two teams looked the last time out. The Bengals were lousy in Dallas, and some of the signs were certainly troubling, but the Patriots feasting on a beat-up winless Browns team whose greatest weakness is covering tight ends shouldn’t mean that New England is suddenly unmatchable in the AFC. Desperation does some wild stuff in the NFL, and the Bengals are starting to face the prospect of falling to 2-4 with a coach facing some regular-season heat for once. The Bengals have improved significantly at guarding tight ends, and if Gronkowski is again not up to par — he was limited with the hamstring injury Wednesday and out Thursday with an illness — the Patriots won’t be nearly as unguardable as they might appear. A monster game from A.J. Green will be necessary for this one to happen, but he’s had those on the road.
Colin Kaepernick amasses three touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills
I’m not saying I’m a believer in Mr. Protest, but I do believe in mirages. Remember when Blaine Gabbert came out and was so efficient running Chip Kelly’s offense in that Week 1 blowout win against the Los Angeles Rams? Kelly’s offense is nothing if not a smack in the face when you first see it, and I think inserting Kaepernick for the first time adds that intrigue. The Bills are rolling on defense, but they’ve had the luxury of facing average to bad quarterbacks along the way. The slate so far has been Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick, a not-right Carson Palmer, Jacoby Brissett and Case Keenum. Kaepernick will ultimately fall on the lower end of that spectrum, but for one game, I’m willing to believe the “Madden” simulations will start to look right.
The Carson Palmer we’ve missed is back with a 350-yard performance
Like the Panthers, the Arizona Cardinals have a struggling star quarterback coming off a concussion. Like with Newton, I think Palmer has the bounceback he badly needs this week. The New York Jets have been abysmal in coverage even with Darrelle Revis. They rank dead last in defensive pass DVOA and have given up 8 passes of at least 40 yards, the second-worst mark in the league. With Revis either limited or out due to a hamstring injury, that will prove fatal against what should be the best deep-passing team in the league, even though it hasn’t been so far this season. The Cardinals’ road win against the 49ers on a short week cured a few ills, particularly up front and in the running game. Palmer’s time off should have provided him a chance to self-scout what hasn’t worked so far this year, and this week, he could shred one of the most vulnerable secondaries for his own version of a pick-me-up.
The Kansas City Chiefs upset the Oakland Raiders on the road behind a 100-yard game from Jamaal Charles
Nobody would blame you if you’ve lost hope in the Chiefs, who have so far shown no pass rush, no offensive identity and no clear strength through a lackluster 2-2 start. On film, they have looked like the worst team in the AFC West, whereas the Raiders have been the best. But bye weeks have been incredibly helpful to Andy Reid in the past. His 15-2 mark after a bye is the best in league history for a coach with at least 10 such games. The week will help him self-scout a better plan for using Alex Smith, which will involve a Jamaal Charles who should be rested after light work prior to the full week of rest. Oakland’s personnel changes have it improving against the run, but the Chiefs will come out with a rejuvenated attack that will set the tempo in this game, draining the time the Raiders have for their usual fourth-quarter comeback.
Ezekiel Elliott runs for 150 yards on the vaunted Green Bay Packers run defense
On the road against the league’s top run defense should be the time when the Cowboys’ stars have their rookie moments, but instead, I think this is when Dallas exerts its will. Green Bay has been sensational stopping the run, but it has faced a very light slate of opposing offensive lines. Last week, the Cowboys moved Bengals linemen who hadn’t been moved all season. The group is gaining momentum with each additional week together, which is how running games often work. Elliott won’t gash the Packers the way he has done teams the past couple of weeks, but he’ll find a crease for a long touchdown run.
The first to 15 wins between the Chicago Bears and the Jacksonville Jaguars
A game between two 1-win teams is likely to turn out sloppy, but those kinds of games still often end up higher-scoring in this offensive NFL. Take Jacksonville’s 30-27 win against the Indianapolis Colts in London, for example. These two teams have slightly more offensive reputations right now, with Brian Hoyer and Jordan Howard giving a spark in Chicago. But the Bears’ best talent is still on defense and the Jaguars have 8 sacks over their past two games. Noon CST kickoffs at Soldier Field often have a sleepy feel, and two weeks of prep for the Jaguars seem more likely to help out the ascending defense than an offense that could look out of sorts again.