New Orleans @ Carolina Panthers
In games between seemingly even teams these Thursday night games tend to slant in favor of the team that can establish a solid run game. The Saints have lost two outdoor games this season, but it hasn’t been because the opponent has been gaining significant yardage on the ground (3.35 yards per carry). Sure, Cam Newton’s health is improving and he is beginning to look like the dual threat we’ve become accustomed to, but he is averaging just 204 passing yards in his six career games against the Saints and has been less than sharp of late (54.7 completion percentage and more interceptions than touchdowns scored). On the other side of the ball, the Panthers’ defense simply isn’t near what it was a season ago. They are giving up the most yards per carry in the league (troubling when you consider how good Mark Ingram looked good on Sunday night) and have been victimized by previously successful quarterbacks all season long (Russell Wilson led a late drive last week, Aaron Rodgers lit them up in Week 7, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco both keyed early season routes). DeAngelo Williams is scheduled to return to action, improving the Panthers chances in this divisional battle, but New Orleans should earn their first road victory of the season.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Saints 26 – Panthers 18
Tampa Bay @ Cleveland
I liked the Vikings’ limited offense to beat the Bucs last week and I like the Browns to do the same this weekend for similar reasons. The Buccaneers are no great run defense (seven rushing touchdowns allowed in seven games), but their inability to knock down passes (opponents are completing 69.2 percent of passes and are averaging four passing touchdowns for every interception) figures to be the deciding factor. Brian Hoyer is no world-beater, but he is completing 59 percent of his passes and has tossed six touchdowns per interception in victories this season (55.2 percent and 2:1 in losses). The location of this game is also worth noting, as the Browns have won three of four in Cleveland while Tampa Bay has dropped two of three on the road, giving up 117 points in the process. Are the Browns going to get to that 39 point average? Probably not, but they’ve eclipsed the 20 point plateau in six of seven games this season and that should be enough against a Bucs team that has failed to reach 20 points five times this season.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Browns 23 – Buccaneers 16
Arizona @ Dallas
Are both of these teams as elite as their records indicate? Only time will tell, but both are built in a similar fashion, making this game an interesting battle. As has been the case in most games this season, I expect this game to be decided on the ground, and while DeMarco Murray is making history, the Cardinals hold the edge here. Does that mean Andre Ellington is better than Murray? No, but this matchup favors him, as the Cardinals run defense is as stout as it gets. The Cowboys unit, on the other hand, has benefited from playing with a lead, thus not forcing their run defense to dominate for four quarters. Tony Romo is more talented than Carson Palmer, but if the run game isn’t effective, Romo becomes a potential liability against a secondary that ranks third in interceptions. Arizona has won all four games he has started this year, and while the completion percentage wasn’t there last week (47.6 percent), he did NOT make the big mistake (eight touchdown tosses and just one pick this year). Look for this game to potentially be lost in the final minutes, not won.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Cardinals 24 – Cowboys 20
Philadelphia @ Houston
Fantasy Football owners circled this matchup in the preseason, as LeSean McCoy and Arian Foster are two of the best the NFL has to offer. Interestingly enough, Foster’s season numbers are far superior, but McCoy is a big part of the reason why I like the visitors to escape with a victory. Philadelphia has the sixth-highest graded defensive line when it comes to stopping the run, making it reasonable to think that they can force Ryan Fitzpatrick (completing less than 57 percent of his third down passes this season) to make big plays instead of Foster. The Texans, on the other hand, rank as the sixth-worst run defense through eight weeks, a major issue when you consider that the Eagles are beginning to feed the beast that is Shady (at least 21 carries and multiple receptions in three straight games). If that trend continues and McCoy finds running room, the game-breaking play in the passing game is a good bet. No receiver in football that has been targeted at least 50 times has an aDOT (the average distance down field when targeted) greater than 15.2 (Kelvin Benjamin and Vincent Jackson) other than Jeremy Maclin (17.0). Normally, that is a concerning trend, as it tends to reflect an all-or-nothing passing attack, but with Houston giving up a league-high 10 pass plays of at least 40 yards this season, it should be viewed as a potential game-changer. Houston’s ability to control the clock may keep this game close, but look for the Eagles to make a big play or two down the stretch (the opposite of last week) that will determine the outcome.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Eagles 30 – Texans 24
New York (Jets) @ Kansas City
Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be: the Jets’ pass offense is as bad as it gets and the Chiefs have yet to allow a rushing touchdown. It’s not crazy to assume that Kansas City routinely stacks the box and spies Percy Harvin, thus making any sort of explosive play unlikely. The Chiefs don’t exactly own a high-octane offense, but Alex Smith can do enough to be the difference. Sure, Jamaal Charles is great, but the Jets own a strong front seven and figure to make limiting him their first, second, and third priority (as they should). That style of defense should allow them to stay competitive longer than their talent level dictates, but they don’t force mistakes in the passing game (22 touchdowns allowed and just one interception) and Alex Smith doesn’t make costly bad decisions (21 INT’s in his last 48 games). Sustained drives tend to win games, and while a trick play or a lucky bounce could net the Jets a long score, it probably won’t be enough to keep them from being physically dominated.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Chiefs 23 – Jets 10
Jacksonville @ Cincinnati
The Bengals earned a ‘W’ in the final moments last week against the Ravens, but it wasn’t the type of convincing victory they wanted following three straight miserable performances. That, however, should come this weekend against a Jags team that is taking the lumps you’d expect from having a young squad. Don’t get me wrong, Jacksonville battles, but the gap in talent on both sides of the ball will be too much for them to overcome this week. Andy Dalton is likely to get A.J. Green back, a huge addition that makes this offense dangerous from anywhere on the field. Critics may not want to hear this, but Dalton has actually been an efficient passer this season, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes if you subtract the stinker against the Colts in Week 7. Mohamed Sanu has received at least nine targets in four straight games, providing an underneath option that has been sorely missing in years past and making this offense much less predictable. Let’s not forget that this is the same Bengals team that stood atop many Power Rankings after four weeks, and while their defense may not be the stingy unit we saw last year, they’ve only really been exposed by elite quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck). Blake Bortles, who last week threw more touchdowns to the Dolphins than to his Jaguars teammates, is not quite in that class.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Bengals 27 – Jaguars 13
San Diego @ Miami
This may seem like an upset, but it’s a matchup that actually leans heavily in favor of the ‘Fins. San Diego struggles to run block and Miami is among the best defenses in terms of pass coverage, so how exactly do the Chargers plan to move the ball? On the flip side, while Ryan Tannehill has shown some signs of improvement, Lamar Miller (five straight games with at least 99 total yards or a touchdown)should be the X-Factor against a run defense that is average at best. During their three consecutive disappointing efforts (a close win over the Raiders and losses to the Chiefs and Broncos), San Diego has allowed an average of 136 yards and one touchdown on the ground, numbers that will cost them dearly this week if they cannot cure this flaw. Extra prep time should help San Diego, but this is a poor matchup and it could result in a third straight loss.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Dolphins 23 – Chargers 17
Washington @ Minnesota
Speaking of matchups dictating outcomes, the Vikings are very limited and have a very specific type of opponent that they can defeat. The Buccaneers fit that mold, as they grade out as one of the worst run defenses and they allow opponents to complete a high percentage (69.2) of their passes. Teddy Bridgewater is not good enough to win games by himself, but with an effective and constant run game behind the talented Jerick McKinnon, he can do enough to extend drives and score some points. Just look at last week, as the rookie wasn’t asked to take major chances (5.74 yards per pass attempt with zero interceptions) and while he didn’t complete a high percentage of his passes, he made enough plays against a weak defense. I’m expecting more of the same this weekend against a Redskins team that will be traveling on a short work week. Washington doesn’t know who is going to be under center, a level of uncertainty that magnifies their struggles to consistently move the ball on the ground. The Vikings’ week-to-week results have been predictable; they struggle against very good quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Tom Brady have outscored them by 80 points) and are more than competitive against anything less than the elite ( plus-46 point differential).
Week 9 Soppe Score: Vikings 20 – Redskins 14
St. Louis @ San Francisco
The better team, the better quarterback, the better defense, an extended rest, and the home team. If any team can hold a decided advantage in the majority of those categories, they are a favorite in my books. Own an advantage in four of those options and I’m likely to pick them. Sweep all five and I might run to the bank. The Niners are being taken to the bank, as they hold the edge in all five of the categories, among many others, as they oppose a beat up Rams team that will be adjusting to life without LT Jake Long and WR Brian Quick. These two teams squared off three weeks ago in a game in which San Francisco scored 31 of the final 34 points and physically imposed their will after sustaining a first quarter punch from Austin Davis. Yea, the last part of that sentence sounded funny and it is difficult to project this offense producing at a high level for even one quarter in the rematch. Divisional games tend to be closer than they should be, so don’t be surprised if St. Louis hangs around in this one, but the outcome should never be in doubt for much of the second half.
Week 9 Soppe Score: 49ers 34 – Rams 17
Denver @ New England
The unquestioned game of the week does features two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Tom Brady (1,268 yards, 14 touchdowns, and zero interceptions in October) and Peyton Manning (at least three touchdowns with zero interceptions on five separate occasions this season) playing at an extremely high level, but it is the improved defenses that figure to determine the winner of this Fall Classic. The Broncos aggressive front seven have, thanks in part to the excellence of Manning, made nearly every opponent one dimensional, as they have given up the fewest yards on the ground this season. New England doesn’t exactly rely on a potent run game to set up their offense, but if they can’t make Denver at least respect the threat of the run, look for the Super Sack Bros (DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller) to make life difficult for Brady behind a below average offensive line. On the other side, the Patriots’ defensive improvements have been in the secondary more so than the pass rush, and while that is nice, Manning is more than capable of carving up any defense if given time for his precise play calls to develop. I have all the respect in the world for Brady and what he has been able to do with the Patriots’ current roster, but the team has struggled when he is under pressure and forcing passes (54.4 percent completion rate in losses this season). Denver is the better team and we should see that in Foxboro on Sunday.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Broncos 31 – Patriots 23
Oakland @ Seattle
The “defending champion” version of the Seahawks showed some signs of re-emerging last week against the Panthers, and a home game against the winless Raiders is as good a spot as any to continue their improvement. No team in the NFL has rushed for fewer yards than Oakland and no defense is allowing fewer yards per carry and less rushing touchdowns than Seattle. So yes, if you pick the Raiders, you are relying on Derek Carr beating the Legion of Boom. Good luck with that. Look for Marshawn Lynch to get back on track and Russell Wilson to continue his efficient ways, allowing Seattle to coast to victory against a Raiders team that simply is not ready to compete against 90 percent of today’s NFL.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Seahawks 31 – Raiders 10
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
All eyes will be on the 16th dual between Manning and Brady, but this might end up being the most entertaining game on the Week 9 slate. The Ravens handled their business in Week 2 (26-6 win), thanks to a strong and consistent running attack, and while I think this game is considerably closer, the ground game is still the reason why Baltimore is the pick at Heinz Field. Both teams can rush the passer with the best of them, a trend that actually makes me think there will be no shortage of big plays, as both quarterbacks will be looking deep downfield should their offensive line pick up a heavy blitz. That being said, the Ravens own the top run-blocking offensive line in all of football and they are comfortable giving 20-plus touches per game to versatile RB Justin Forsett. By no means is he as talented as the Steelers Le’Veon Bell (potentially the best RB in all of football sooner rather than later), but he runs behind a great set of blockers and moves the chains. Baltimore has more takeaways, fewer giveaways, and more sacks this season, trends that should give them an edge as this game comes down to the wire. Look for a big play late to decide the winner of this game, as we may see a two-minute drill lead to a game-winning field goal.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Ravens 20 – Steelers 17
Indianapolis @ New York (Giants)
Indianapolis has lost three games this year, surrendering an average of 374 passing yards in those contests. Eli Manning would have to increase his average per game passing stats for 2014 by over 66 percent to achieve that total. Given the productivity of Andrew Luck and the ball control nature of the Colts’ offense, it stands to reason that an opposing quarterback is going to have to produce at a very high level in order to contend, something I’m not sure Eli Manning can do, even with a week off. The Colts’ defense isn’t nearly as bad as they looked on Sunday, nor are they nearly as good as they looked in a Week 7 shutout of the Bengals, but their Top 10 rank in both takeaways and sacks is a trend that I’m buying into against a quarterback that routinely ranks very low in every “passing when under pressure” metric out there (PFF has given him the same score this season as Geno Smith!). New York can hang in this game if they control the tempo and run the ball effectively, but if they fall behind things could snowball in a hurry.
Week 9 Soppe Score: Colts 34 – Giants 20