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Even at the NFL level, some players just stand out above the rest. These are special playmakers who are able to lift entire teams. Not only do they make plays on their own, but they also allow coaches to do more scheme-wise, they make the players around them better, and they make the guys on their team think they’re better.
When I went to the playoffs with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2005, we had a few of these guys on our team. Players like Simeon Rice, Cadillac Williams and Joey Galloway made everything easier for us, and honestly, if we had lost any one of them, I’d have stepped onto the field thinking, “Crap, can we really win without him?”
I’m talking about this type of special player because we’ve lost so many of them this season—Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson…the list goes on. I’ve talked about injuries a lot this season, but I’m still not sure everyone realizes just how much these losses have affected the league this year.
You can’t just say “next man up” when you lose one of these guys—and you’re seeing that play out. The Green Bay Packers, for example, are not the same team without Rodgers. You can see it on the field and see it on the sideline. The players don’t really believe they can win, and they certainly don’t believe that a win is going to mean anything for their season.
Given the injuries, it’s hard for me to believe in some of these teams too—hell, I wouldn’t have picked the Houston Texans last week had I known Watson was going to suffer a season-ending injury.
Which teams am I buying into now? Here are my picks for Week 10.
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When: Thursday at 8:25 p.m. ET (NFL, NBC, Amazon), University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
The week-opening contest between the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals should be a close one. When I look at the Cardinals, I do see the talent and the schemes to give Seattle problems. Arizona will be able to pressure Russell Wilson and contain him at times.
Ultimately, though, Seattle is the better football team overall. With Drew Stanton at quarterback, the Cardinals are going to rely heavily on Adrian Peterson. Seattle knows this and will button up the run defense. Arizona’s pass game isn’t going to scare Seattle.
The Seahawks defense isn’t as special as it once was, but it is good enough to force Stanton into mistakes and take advantage. With Wilson on the other side of the ball, the Seahawks will get enough big plays to win a tough, physical game on the road.
Prediction: Seahawks 21, Cardinals 17
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When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS), Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
The New York Jets are the better overall team here. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are struggling to make plays right now. They will be even less potent without Mike Evans and starting Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback—which, by the way, makes this a bit of a revenge game for him and Josh McCown.
I’ve been saying all year that the Jets are a good team with a lot of admirable qualities. They’re stout up front on both sides of the ball, the receiving corps is coming together, and I love what coordinator John Morton is doing with the offense. McCown can still sling it too, and when he takes care of the ball, the Jets are tough to defeat.
Tampa is the type of opponent New York should beat.
The Buccaneers defense is bad in every facet. The Jets will be able to move the ball. The Jets defense, on the other hand, is going to be too much for Fitzpatrick and his Evans-less offense.
Prediction: Jets 24, Buccaneers 16
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox), New Era Field, Orchard Park, New York
The New Orleans Saints present a tough matchup for the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo wants to play tough up front and run the ball. Well, the Saints are physical defensively and can stop the run. The Saints have some guys on the edge who can pressure Tyrod Taylor as well.
On the other side, Buffalo plays a lot of zone defense. The Bills don’t want to give up the big play, and they want to make opponents execute all the way down the field. That’s great most of the time. One thing we know, though, is that Drew Brees and Sean Payton have been capable of carving up this style of defense throughout their careers.
This is a bad matchup schematically for the Bills, and the Saints are the better team in general. The one factor in Buffalo’s favor is the fact this game is in New York and is outside, where Brees can struggle at times. Still, the Saints are one of the best teams in football and should win here.
Prediction: Saints 24, Bills 20
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When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS), Ford Field, Detroit
It’s no mystery that the Detroit Lions are the better team here. Their biggest advantage is having Matthew Stafford at quarterback. The Cleveland Browns have played multiple quarterbacks this season—which obviously means they don’t have a signal-caller who can match Stafford.
I’ll say this, though: The Detroit defense is not great, and Cleveland will be able to move the ball a bit. The Browns defense is better than people realize—especially in the front seven—and can give the Lions trouble. Coordinator Gregg Williams game-plans well and can confuse opposing offenses. Detroit’s offense is fairly one-dimensional, and that’s another factor in Cleveland’s favor.
This game is going to be closer than folks think.
The question is whether the Browns can actually score when they get in the red zone. Can they avoid multiple turnovers? Cleveland would have to play an absolutely perfect game to win this one, and even then, I’d trust Stafford to pull out some late-game magic and win anyway.
Prediction: Lions 23, Browns 16
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When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox), Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee
The biggest matchup here is the Cincinnati Bengals defense against the Tennessee Titans offense.
This Bengals defense is still one of the best in the game. Cincinnati can contain the run and has the cornerbacks on the outside to shut down the pass game too. It’s a tough matchup for the Titans because of those corners; the Bengals won’t be afraid to load the box to stop the run.
It could be up to Marcus Mariota and the passing game to beat the Cincinnati defense.
On the other side, Tennessee has a good defense but not a great one. The problem for the Bengals is that they have too simple of a scheme to outperform Dick LeBeau’s unit. He’ll be able to shut down many of the plays Cincinnati has had success with. The offensive line is a mess, and the Bengals cannot get the run game going on a consistent basis.
Because of this, I believe the Titans will make just a few more plays and wear the Bengals down over the course of four quarters.
Prediction: Titans 23, Bengals 19
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When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox), Soldier Field, Chicago
As I’ve been saying, the Packers just aren’t the same team without No. 12 under center. It’s a short week for them, and I have to see something more out of Brett Hundley’s team before I’m going to pick Green Bay to win a game.
The Chicago Bears are a tough matchup for the Packers anyway. Their defense is real and is almost capable of winning games by itself—in fact, it did a few weeks ago against the Carolina Panthers. The Bears front seven is as ferocious and as disruptive as any in the game, and the Packers are playing without right tackle Bryan Bulaga. That’s bad news for an inexperienced quarterback.
The Packers simply aren’t going to be able to move the ball against Chicago’s defense with any consistency. Now, the Bears aren’t going to just run up and down the field offensively, but they have a strong enough line, a good enough running game and can get enough big plays from Mitch Trubisky to pull ahead.
Prediction: Bears 17, Packers 13
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When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS), EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida
It’s the Gus Bradley Bowl! These are two teams that play the Seattle-style defensive scheme, and I’m not sure who has the advantage mentally—Bradley against his former team or the Jacksonville Jaguars against Bradley.
The Jaguars have the advantage over the Los Angeles Chargers on the field, though. The game is in Jacksonville. The Jaguars defense is a Super Bowl-caliber unit. They also have Leonard Fournette back to play against a Chargers run defense that is 31st in the league (135.1 yards per game allowed).
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles is playing just well enough that the Chargers won’t be able to key in exclusively on the run.
L.A. isn’t going to be able to consistently move the ball on Jacksonville, and the Chargers aren’t going to be able to contain the Jaguars offense either.
Prediction: Jaguars 21, Chargers 13
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When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (Fox), FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland
This is the toughest game of the week to pick. If the Washington Redskins were completely healthy, I’d probably choose them. I’m just not sure they have enough talent and depth to overcome injuries and the Minnesota Vikings.
This is still going to be one of the best matchups of the week. Even though the Redskins are beat up, they have weapons, and they’ve shown they’re capable of making big plays. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has his unit playing at a high level too.
The problem is that while the Redskins showed they were capable of making big plays against the Seahawks, their defense isn’t even close to what Minnesota’s is. The Vikings defense is one of the three or four best in football.
Minnesota’s offense is capable of making plays of its own. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are both healthy and can stretch the field. The Vikings can run the ball too. This one will be close, but the Vikings have the weapons on both sides of the ball to come out on top.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Redskins 20
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When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS), Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
This is a scary game for the Indianapolis Colts. Their defense isn’t good, and now they have to worry about a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that is both balanced and explosive. It’s going to be tough for the Colts to ever really slow down Pittsburgh.
On the other side, Jacoby Brissett and the Indianapolis passing game can find some holes in Pittsburgh’s zone defense. He can strike deep, and the Colts passing scheme is really good. Indianapolis can have offensive success for stretches.
Ultimately, though, the Steelers are too talented on both sides of the ball for Indianapolis to hang with them. Pittsburgh is one of the best teams in football. The Colts are not.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Colts 16
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
When: Sunday at 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS), L.A. Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles
Houston is not the same team after losing Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to injuries. The offense is stagnant, and the defense is giving up too many big plays. Now that defense has to face the Los Angeles Rams and the best passing scheme in the NFL.
Sean McVay is the hottest play-caller in the game, and Jared Goff is performig as well as he ever has. With all the weapons the Rams have, their ability to run the ball and their play design, L.A. is likely to dice up Houston.
I won’t say the Rams have one of the five best defenses in the game, but they do have the ability to create turnovers and wreak havoc. It’s going to present a lot of problems for Houston’s Tom Savage-led offense.
It’s simply going to be too difficult for the Texans to keep pace with the Rams for four quarters.
Prediction: Rams 31, Texans 20
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When: Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET (Fox), Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California
There’s no way to get around the fact this is a game between two ugly teams. The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers are a combined 1-16 this season. Oh boy, this one’s going to be exciting.
This game is going to come down to the fact the Giants have more talent on the field. Their defense isn’t great, but it has some playmakers up front and in the secondary. They’ll be able to pressure the quarterback and match up with San Francisco’s receivers one-on-one on the outside. The 49ers defense is a complete mess.
Offensively, I have to trust Eli Manning more than I trust C.J. Beathard.
The Giants are going to be embarrassed by the way they were beat down by the Rams last week, and I think we’re going to see a little pride show through. In an ugly game between two bad teams, that’ll be the difference-maker.
Prediction: Giants 20, 49ers 17
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Bob Leverone/Associated Press
When: Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET (Fox), Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
This is a rough matchup for the Atlanta Falcons defense. Atlanta is merely average against the run—ranked 18th in the NFL—and the Dallas Cowboys have shown they can run on anyone. Of course, Ezekiel Elliott’s Thursday hearing will have an impact.
As long as Elliott is able to play, the Falcons are going to have their hands full. Atlanta’s defense can be overaggressive at times, and that can lead to cutback runs and play-action passes by Dak Prescott.
On the other side of the ball, Dallas’ defensive line can present problems for the Falcons. Atlanta’s line is pretty good in pass protection, but the Cowboys have been beating opponents by dominating up front. This is a sneaky-good matchup that could determine the outcome of the game. Keep in mind, though, that Atlanta’s line was overpowered by Carolina last week. That could easily happen again this week.
The Cowboys have found their mojo and appear ready to keep rolling. I don’t know what to think of the Falcons right now. Their offense isn’t as good as last year’s, and their defense can be undisciplined. The one thing you have to be to beat Dallas is disciplined on defense.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Falcons 24
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When: Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC), Sports Authority Field, Denver
Everybody gives the New England Patriots their best shot, there’s no doubt about that. When Tom Brady and Co. come to town, teams try a little more because they know they’re going to be overmatched and outcoached to a degree. It usually takes a perfect game to beat New England.
The Denver Broncos are going to be pissed off because they were as physically dominated as a team can be last week. I don’t think, though, Denver is capable of playing a perfect game right now.
Brock Osweiler and the Broncos offense should be able to move the ball some on New England, but Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia will ultimately figure out how to force some mistakes. While the Denver defense is still very good, it isn’t capable of completely shutting down Brady and the Patriots offense for four full quarters—especially if Denver is committing turnovers and giving the Patriots favorable field position.
This is a game that should be close for a while but one in which the Patriots pull away.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Broncos 17
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Bob Leverone/Associated Press
When: Monday at 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN), Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
I could see the Miami Dolphins righting their ship and becoming a Wild Card contender the way they did last season. The defense is stout up front, the offense has weapons—I particularly like what Kenyan Drake adds—and Jay Cutler is playing well.
The Dolphins really outplayed the Oakland Raiders last week, but they blew it in the end.
In this matchup, though, Carolina is the better team on both sides of the ball. The Panthers defense is special, and their front seven is in the discussion for the best in the game. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers should be able to open up the offense a bit—provided they’re willing to keep Miami off-balance by continuing to run Cam Newton.
I believe Carolina is a legit Super Bowl contender, and I’m not going to back off that. The Panthers will show this against a potential playoff team on Monday night.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Dolphins 20