All hail the Cincinnati Bengals, who would be the AFC’s top seed if the season ended today. We all saw that coming, of course, just like we all knew that the Chiefs would be a sloppy mess not just on defense, but offense as well. The topsy-turvy AFC is the story after Week 7. Cincinnati went on the road and destroyed Baltimore, and in the process Ja’Marr Chase set a rookie receiving record, and Tennessee throttled Kansas City, holding the Chiefs without a touchdown in a regular-season game for the first time in Mahomes’ career. Meanwhile, the Panthers have major issues at quarterback after another dreadful Sam Darnold outing, and the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo got a very tepid endorsement from his head coach after a poor outing in a loss to the Colts. Speaking of coaches and quarterbacks, Matt Nagy somehow still has a job in Chicago despite a disastrous outing for Justin Fields against Tampa Bay. The Cardinals and Packers kept cruising right along, and meet Thursday in Arizona in the best game of the week. That game aside, Week 8 is short on marquee matchups, at least on paper, but there will be plenty of intrigue nonetheless. Let’s get to the games.
Point spreads are from DraftKings.com, and are current as of 11 a.m. ET Thursday.
BYE: Raiders, Ravens
NOTE: Pick with spread is in bold.
Last Week: 8-5 (Season: 49-58)
TV: NFL NETWORK Line: Arizona -6
What you need to know: On the scoreboard, it looked like Green Bay had an easy time with Washington. In reality, the Football Team outgained the Packers 430-304 and had three drives end inside the Packers’ 15-yard line courtesy of an interception and a pair of failed fourth-down conversions. Green Bay had no running game to speak of and relied on Aaron Rodgers’ brilliance to win. In short, it was not a dominating effort by a team that is 6-1 but remains middle of the pack in several statistical categories. And now, with Davante Adams in the COVID protocol and likely out, Green Bay’s offense will have even more challenges. Arizona spotted Houston five points, then scored the next 31 to roll to an easy victory. Chase Edmonds and James Conner combined for 145 yards on 25 carries, and Zach Ertz made an immediate impact with a 47-yard touchdown catch. The Cardinals’ defense is still tops in the league in points against but will get perhaps their stiffest test to date against Rodgers, and J.J. Watt looks like he’s done for the year with a shoulder injury. A win is necessary to keep pace in the NFC West because the Rams are favored by two touchdowns for the second straight week.
On the spot: Packers RB Aaron Jones. With the Packers shorthanded as far as offensive weapons, a considerable extra burden will be placed on Jones, who has averaged about 16 touches per game so far this season.
Cardinals LB Isaiah Simmons: With Watt gone, Simmons’ job will get a little more difficult, as opposing blockers will be able to get to him easier in the run game, and the lack of Watt’s disruptive tendencies will make his life more difficult in pass coverage.
The pick: Cardinals 28 Packers 24
TV: FOX Line: Atlanta -3
What you need to know: The season started promisingly for Sam Darnold and the Panthers, but four straight losses – and four straight terrible games from Darnold – have soured things quickly. Sacks have been a factor, as Darnold and P.J. Walker, who came into the game after Matt Rhule pulled Darnold, were both sacked three times, but the fact that Christian McCaffrey’s absence has caused the offense to fall apart is troubling. Rhule said Darnold is still his starter, but it must be hard for anyone in Charlotte to feel good about that. The Falcons nearly let a 13-point lead slip away against the Dolphins, but Matt Ryan and Kyle Pitts joined forces to save the day with a game-winning field goal drive. Pitts won’t win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award – that already belongs to Ja’Marr Chase – but over the last two weeks, he has been targeted 18 times, and has responded with 16 receptions, 282 yards, and a touchdown. If he and Ryan keep this up, the Falcons might not be a serious contender, but they will be entertaining.
On the spot: Panthers QB Sam Darnold. The mere fact that Carolina was connected at all to the Deshaun Watson trade rumors suggests that things are headed downhill for Darnold in Charlotte. He needs to turn around his play, and fast, or Carolina’s move to acquire him will look horrible.
Falcons DC Dean Pees: Atlanta’s offense is starting to come alive, particularly because of Pitts’ emergence, but Pees needs to find a way to create more turnovers to make the Falcons dangerous; Atlanta had two against Miami but has just five total this season, 27th in the NFL.
The pick: Falcons 26 Panthers 17
TV: CBS Line: Buffalo -13.5
What you need to know: Tua Tagovailoa’s numbers against Atlanta looked impressive; he completed 32-of-40 passes for 291 yards and 4 touchdowns. Whether or not he played a good game is a murkier discussion. Tagovailoa threw two crucial interceptions, including one in the end zone, that directly led to 10 Falcons points. He was better when the Dolphins were playing catch-up, but Miami drafted him to create leads, not try to rally from deficits. One bright spot? Tagovailoa seems to be developing significant connections with Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki. The Bills got to lick their wounds on their bye week, and Miami should provide a needed tonic for a defense that got run over by Derrick Henry. That defense, while it ranks second in the league in points allowed, is still prone to bad games against great offenses. The Titans game was a case study in that regard. So long as Josh Allen continues to roll, it should be plenty good enough to get the Bills where they want to go in the postseason. Games with the Jaguars and Jets follow this contest, so the Bills have no excuse if they aren’t 7-2 come mid-November.
On the spot: Dolphins HC Brian Flores. Miami has three losses by three points or less this year; coming out on the wrong end in that many close games is at least in part a reflection on the head coach. Flores needs to find a way to push the right buttons in close games, though this matchup doesn’t figure to be one.
Bills OC Brian Daboll: If there was one notable thing about Buffalo’s loss to Tennessee, it’s that the Bills mostly eschewed running the ball with their backs. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss combined for just 51 yards on 13 carries. More involvement for those two might help moving forward.
The pick: Bills 35 Dolphins 14
TV: FOX Line: San Francisco -3.5
What you need to know: Saying that Chicago’s offense was terrible against Tampa Bay would be an insult to terrible offenses everywhere (looking at you, Jets). Justin Fields looked lost against the Buccaneers’ pass rush, and the Bears had no answers despite the fact that they were able to run the ball with surprising success. Matt Nagy’s job seems safe for now, despite there being little reason for that to be the case, and he’s now tested positive for COVID-19. Given fans’ annoyance with their coach, a little time away might be best for all parties involved. The 49ers have quarterback issues of their own, with Kyle Shanahan saying, “I’d guess so,” in response to whether or not Jimmy Garoppolo would remain the starter. Shanahan’s answer is a commentary on both a lack of good health for Garoppolo and Trey Lance and a lack of production from both men as well. If San Francisco doesn’t get improved play from one of those two soon, its season will spiral out of control, as dates with the Cardinals and Rams loom after this game.
On the spot: Bears Special Teams Coach Chris Tabor. If COVID keeps Nagy from coaching, Tabor will fill in as acting head coach. It’s a tough enough job as is, but one wonders if Nagy potentially being away might actually help Justin Fields and the offense.
49ers HC Kyle Shanahan: Shanahan’s team has lost four games in a row. His quarterback situation is in flux, as noted above. Nothing much is going right. He gets plenty of credit when the Niners are humming, so he deserves the scrutiny when they are not.
The pick: 49ers 20 Bears 17
TV: CBS Line: Cleveland -3
What you need to know: The Steelers’ bye came at a good time, even though it interrupted a modest two-game winning streak. Mike Tomlin’s team was banged up with soft-tissue injuries and now will get a chance to get revenge for last year’s playoff loss to Cleveland. Pittsburgh’s offense sputtered in a narrow win over Seattle, however, struggling to sustain drives in the second half against a historically bad Seahawks defense. If that version of the team shows up again, they’ll have a hard time beating the Browns no matter who plays quarterback for Cleveland. Case Keenum or Baker Mayfield? That’s the big question for the Browns after Keenum was efficient, if unspectacular, in a win over the Broncos. Mayfield practiced Wednesday, but given the condition of his left shoulder, it seems like his participation would be ill-advised, particularly given Keenum’s steady performance last week. If the Browns run the ball against Pittsburgh as they did against Denver, they should win no matter who they have under center.
On the spot: Steelers DE Cam Heyward. Pittsburgh’s defensive line is Heyward and a bunch of no-names, and he’ll have to be great for the Steelers to have a chance of shutting down Cleveland’s dynamic ground attack.
Browns HC Kevin Stefanski: Whether or not the Browns win this game might come down to whether or not Stefanski allows Mayfield to play. Spoiler alert: He shouldn’t.
The pick: Browns 24 Steelers 19
TV: FOX Line: Philadelphia -3.5
What you need to know: Another week, another clunker for the Eagles, who traveled to Las Vegas and got thumped by the Raiders, 33-22, in a game that wasn’t as close as that score indicated. The Eagles’ offense completely disappeared after a 67-yard touchdown march to open the game, failing to score again until eight seconds remained in the third quarter. The defense was gashed for 30 points on five consecutive drives and was powerless to stop Derek Carr, who went 31-of-34 on the game. His 91.2 completion percentage was the second-highest for any quarterback with 30 or more passes in a game in NFL history. Detroit again performed admirably in defeat, falling to the Rams 28-19 despite Dan Campbell pulling out all the stops, including two successful fake punts. Detroit has the worst record in the league, but their actual performances suggest that while they aren’t very good, they also aren’t the league’s worst team. Detroit is more like a 2-5 football team, which is why this game could get interesting. The Lions can’t defend the pass, but Philadelphia is still finding their way in that area; if Detroit gets an early lead, they may well get the win.
On the spot: Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon. Gannon’s defense got scorched by Derek Carr and he had no answers to stop the bleeding at the moment. Philadelphia’s offense gets most of the attention, but they’ve struggled defensively against better offenses. Is this a get-well game?
Lions RB D’Andre Swift: Swift is averaging over a yard less per carry this year than in his rookie season, but he has made up for that by upping his yards per catch from 7.8 to 9.3. He’ll no doubt have a little extra motivation going against his hometown team.
The pick: Lions 27 Eagles 23
TV: CBS Line: Indianapolis -1.5
What you need to know: Fresh off a 27-3 beat down of the Chiefs, the Titans travel to Indianapolis to try and fully seize control of the AFC South. Kansas City sold out to stop Derrick Henry, and Ryan Tannehill made them pay with an efficient performance – and Henry threw a touchdown, to boot. Tennessee’s defense still leaves something to be desired, but the offense is now starting to come alive, and if Tannehill can continue to get himself rolling, they’ll be one of the most fearsome groups in the league. After an 0-3 start, the Colts have quietly gotten off the deck and won three of their last four, the only loss being their meltdown against the Ravens. Carson Wentz is showing signs that he’s turned himself around, with a 102.8 passer rating, and 11 touchdowns against just one interception. Indianapolis needs this game badly; if the Colts lose, they will be three games behind Tennessee in the loss column, will have been swept by the Titans in the season series, and will be all but out of the division race.
On the spot: Titans WR Julio Jones. The Titans need production from a wide receiver other than A.J. Brown, and Jones, who is dealing with a hamstring injury but leads the team with 17.7 yards per reception, is the obvious candidate to step up.
Colts QB Carson Wentz: It might seem like a broken record at this point, but Wentz’s play so far this year is a big development for Indy. He needs to have his best game of the year because, for divisional purposes, this is as close to a must-win as a Week 8 game can be.
The pick: Titans 28 Colts 23
TV: CBS Line: Cincinnati -10.5
What you need to know: Don’t look now, but the Cincinnati Bengals would be the AFC’s top seed if the season ended today, and while Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow are rightfully getting plenty of attention – Chase has the rookie record for most receiving yards through seven games, and would have it for eight even if he sat out this week – Cincinnati has quietly assembled the fifth-best scoring defense in the league. Lou Anarumo’s group doesn’t force many turnovers, but it is stingy against the run and pass and hasn’t allowed more than 25 points in a game this season. On the offensive side, Cincinnati’s much-maligned offensive line has allowed just seven sacks in the last five games, after surrendering 10 in the first two. The Jets will be without Zach Wilson for 2-4 weeks due to a sprained PCL, and the team traded for Joe Flacco in the interim. If you, intrepid reader, can figure out the point of that move, you’re a better NFL analyst than I. If anything, an argument could be made that Wilson will learn more while he’s healing up than he would have while getting beaten up for several more weeks.
On the spot: Bengals LT Jonah Williams. Williams allowed three quarterback hits in Cincy’s blowout win over Baltimore. As good as things are going for the Bengals, Burrow’s health is paramount, and hits need to be minimized, particularly from his blind side.
Jets QB Mike White: Good luck, man!
The pick: Bengals 38 Jets 13
TV: FOX Line: Los Angeles -14
What you need to know: Two weeks, two mismatches on paper for the Rams. Los Angeles struggled to put away the Lions in the Goff-Stafford Bowl last week, in part because Dan Campbell coached the game like it was his personal Super Bowl. The Rams have responded well since Arizona throttled them in Week 4, primarily on the strength of a defense that has forced eight turnovers in the last three weeks, and allowed 16.3 points per game in that same span. The Texans have scored three touchdowns in their last five games. That is not a misprint. Tyrod Taylor is getting healthier, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to play until at least Week 9, so it will be Davis Mills’ show for at least one more week. Houston is averaging 4.8 yards per play, tied for third-worst in the league. In three of Mills’ starts, the Texans have averaged less than 4 yards per play, which would be by far the worst number in the league over the course of the entire season.
On the spot: Rams CB Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey’s game-sealing interception against the Lions was a thing of beauty, with Ramsey undercutting a route and taking advantage of Aaron Donald’s pressure to pick off Jared Goff. Ramsey has a chance to have a field day, given Mills’ struggles so far.
Texans WR Brandin Cooks: Cooks should be trade bait; whether or not he actually is remains to be seen. Either way, he has a chance to impress potential suitors if he can put up some numbers against Ramsey.
The pick: Rams 31 Texans 10
TV: CBS Line: Los Angeles -5
What you need to know: Mac Jones got his first 300-yard passing game and New England let out some frustration, burying the hapless Jets 54-13 last week. The Pats are in an interesting spot; their offense isn’t great but it is improving, and the rest of the schedule, though it does have two dates with Buffalo, suddenly doesn’t look as daunting. A 6-4 finish would get the Patriots to 9-8 and possibly a playoff berth. If they can sneak a win in this game, that scenario will become a lot more plausible. The Chargers got humbled by Baltimore, then had to go and stew over that game during their bye week. Los Angeles still looks like one of the best, most dynamic offenses in the league, but having some semblance of a running game would help. Justin Herbert will have a tough test from Bill Belichick’s defense in this one, and if the Chargers lose, they’ll have wasted an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Chiefs, not to mention keep pace with the Raiders.
On the spot: Patriots QB Mac Jones. The notion that the Patriots could get on a run and make the playoffs this year is largely predicated on the idea that Jones can continue to develop as a passer and complement Bill Belichick’s defense. That puts even more pressure on the rookie to perform.
Chargers QB Justin Herbert: Herbert is the higher-ceiling passer in this game, and it isn’t really close. However, after flying high for five games, he and the Chargers came crashing back to earth against Baltimore. A rebound performance is in order, but Belichick won’t make it easy.
The pick: Chargers 26 Patriots 23
TV: CBS Line: Seattle -3
What you need to know: Jacksonville got some time to rest after finally getting Urban Meyer his first win, and now the Jaguars will try to get him his first winning streak with a visit to Seattle. Most of the Jaguars’ problems stem from having a rookie quarterback and head coach; the team is actually good at running the ball and defending the run, but they have a minus-10 turnover margin and have been unable to get the ball down the field consistently in the passing game. Seattle being favored in this game seems somewhat funny; even though the Seahawks have two close losses in Geno Smith’s starts, they don’t seem particularly capable of winning games when he’s under center; there just aren’t enough big plays to be had. Smith hit D.K. Metcalf for a long catch-and-run touchdown against New Orleans, but that was mostly a great play by Metcalf. If Seattle can’t run the ball while Smith is in, they can’t win.
On the spot: Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence. Seattle’s crowd is historically one of the league’s most intimidating, so Lawrence will have his work cut out for him when it comes to limiting pre-snap penalties and taking care of the football, things he’s struggled with even at home.
Seahawks S Jamal Adams: Adams hasn’t consistently made the kind of positive impact Seattle’s investment in him warrants, but with a rookie quarterback on the other side, he has a chance to dramatically affect this game as both a blitzer and a ball-hawk.
The pick: Jaguars 23 Seahawks 17
TV: FOX Line: Denver -3
What you need to know: Washington actually had success moving the football on Green Bay, but came away from three red-zone trips with zero points. It stands to reason that such a dynamic is not predictable on a week-to-week basis and that if Washington can execute more crisply when the field shortens, it should be in much better shape. What continues to be a problem in Washington is the pass defense, which ranks last in the league in both yards and touchdowns allowed. The preceding sentence would be music to the ears of most fan bases, but perhaps not Denver’s. After a 3-0 start, the Broncos have lost four straight, and Teddy Bridgewater’s play, so steady and mistake-free during that unbeaten start, has become turnover-filled and sloppy. Given those two realities, this game stands as a matchup between the movable object and the resistible force. If Denver loses again, Vic Fangio might find himself out of a job on Monday morning.
On the spot: Washington Football Team OC Scott Turner. When a team struggles to come away with points on multiple red-zone trips, blame should be placed not only on the players but also on the coach, for not having better play calls. Turner needs to be better this week.
Broncos HC Vic Fangio: The Broncos are in a very bad way, and their defense has been a major issue in all four of their losses. Fangio is a defensive guru, so if things continue to go bad against Washington, he’ll really be on the hot seat – if a seat even exists anymore.
The pick: Washington Football Team 24 Broncos 20
TV: FOX Line: Tampa Bay -5.5
What you need to know: The Bucs keep rolling right along, using the same formula they have all season; Tom Brady throws lots of touchdowns, and the defense stifles an opposing offense. Tampa Bay flummoxed Justin Fields last week in a game that was over by the end of the first quarter. Brady wasn’t as sharp as he was against Philadelphia, but he still ended up with four touchdowns on just 20 completions. A Tampa win in this game would put the NFC South all but out of reach for New Orleans, and pave the way for at least a 9-1 start for the Bucs. The Saints were able to grind out a win in poor conditions in Seattle, leaning on a stout defense to get the win. That formula worked against Geno Smith, but Jameis Winston and Sean Payton will have to come up with a recipe for more points against Brady, even though the game is in New Orleans. New Orleans’ biggest problem is that it has no consistent downfield threats in the passing game. If that situation stays status quo, Tampa Bay could put the clamps on Winston and company.
On the spot: Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette. Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski won’t play again for Tampa Bay, putting more onus on Fournette. He’s been up to the challenge this year, particularly during Tampa’s current four-game winning streak, with 321 yards and 4.6 yards per carry.
Saints RB Alvin Kamara: Tampa Bay’s defense has the capability to smother New Orleans’ offense, particularly with Michael Thomas out. That puts major pressure on Kamara to make lots of plays, especially in the passing game.
The pick: Buccaneers 27 Saints 23
TV: NBC Line: Dallas -2.5
What you need to know: The Cowboys have the best offense in the league, and Dak Prescott is an MVP front-runner, but one thing to watch is their defense. Trevon Diggs is also a legitimate MVP candidate, but the Cowboys can’t rely on him intercepting a pass in every game (okay, maybe they can). Dallas will become even more dangerous if its defense can find ways to be productive that don’t involve forcing turnovers. Failing that, Dak Prescott and the offense will likely just keep piling up points. The Vikings have won three of four, but it’s hard to get a gauge on what kind of team they are. By the numbers, they’re just better than league average on both sides of the ball, and all three of their losses are to either very good teams (Bengals, Cardinals) or potentially good ones (Browns). That said, they’ve looked sloppy on one or both sides of the ball in their last two wins, against the lowly Lions and the spiraling Panthers. This should be a very good litmus test for Minnesota.
On the spot: Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs. What can Diggs do for an encore? He’s the clear favorite for Defensive Player of the Year at this juncture, and if he picks off a pass in this game, he will set the NFL’s single-season record for consecutive games with an interception.
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins: Cousins’ numbers look good this year, and he’ll need to be great to beat a high-powered Dallas offense. With Diggs lurking on the other side, he’ll also have to be cautious.
The pick: Vikings 33 Cowboys 30
TV: ESPN Line: Kansas City -9.5
What you need to know: New York pulled off one of the major surprise wins of Week 7, drilling Sam Darnold and the Panthers, 25-3. That they did so without Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay or Kadarius Toney is even more impressive. Joe Judge hasn’t exactly had a good run of it so far, but that kind of performance suggests that he hasn’t lost his team. What would really help New York is if Daniel Jones could get on something resembling a roll. He was terrible for two games prior to the Carolina win, but perhaps a trip to Kansas City against a reeling Chiefs defense will help. And speaking of those Chiefs, are they really in trouble? No team has more turnovers than Kansas City’s 17 this year, and Patrick Mahomes looked terrible against the Titans before exiting the game and going through the concussion protocol. Some of Kansas City’s giveaway issues are bad luck; per Pro Football Focus, Mahomes’ rate of turnover-worthy plays this year is 2.6%, which is actually down from last year’s rate of 2.8%. At some point, the offense’s run of bad luck should even out. That said, the defense has no such excuse, and might not have any answers, either.
On the spot: Giants QB Daniel Jones. Will Jones be able to get the bump that so many quarterbacks seem to experience when playing the Chiefs? He was impressive in a win over Carolina without his best weapons available, but 25 points likely won’t cut it in this one.
Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo: Steve, it might be time to figure out some answers for a defense that comes up with new, troubling questions almost every week.
The pick: Chiefs 38 Giants 20
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.