The Sunday night and Monday night prime time games show why flexible scheduling that starts later this month is so important. The two prime-time games might provide the worst one-two punch of Sunday night-Monday games this season.
With that, we focus on the Sunday afternoon games that pit contending teams against each other.
Green Bay Packers (6-1) at Carolina Panthers (7-0)
The Panthers are off to a great start and have backed up their early winning streak by proving it against some teams that are at least contending for playoff positioning, but none of their opponents to date will be as challenging as the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers have won three of the last four meetings between the two teams, including a 38-17 blowout last October.
Both teams have quarterbacks adept at scrambling and throwing, but Aaron Rodgers has been the class of the two, throwing 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions for a 110.9 passer rating, first in the NFC. In his last two games against the Panthers, he has five touchdowns (including three last year) and no interceptions. Cam Newton has been nearly as productive with the yards, but his 11 touchdowns have been marred with eight interceptions. While Rodgers prefers his wide receivers (Randall Cobb leads the team with 36 catches for 377 yards), Newton’s top target is tight end Greg Olsen (33 catches, 518 yards).
However, Rodgers will be facing the tougher defense, especially when it comes to defending the pass. The Panthers have the 10th-ranked defense and are seventh against the pass and they also have Josh Norman, a cornerback emerging as one of the top cover defenders in the league with four interceptions (tied for first in the NFC) and 12 passes defensed (first in the NFC). Will the Panthers match him up against Cobb, who had 121 yards and a touchdown last year against the Panthers, and will the Packers’ running tandem of James Starks and Eddie Lacy be able to establish a ground game with Luke Kuechly, the NFL’s leading tackler since 2012 with 519, impeding their progress?
St. Louis Rams (4-3) at Minnesota Vikings (5-2)
For various reasons, Jeff Fisher’s teams have struggled against the Vikings, going 1-6 against them, including a 34-6 thrashing in Mike Zimmer’s first game as Minnesota’s head coach last year.
But this matchup will be hyped more for the running backs than the coaches. Last year’s game was Adrian Peterson’s first and only game of 2014 as he dealt with legal issues and a suspension, but he is back feeling as strong as ever. Peterson is third in the NFL with 633 yards rushing, but the two in front of him each have one more game. But Todd Gurley is the “young Adrian Peterson,” according to Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, and the comparisons seem legitimate.
Gurley missed the first two games of the season while recovering from knee surgery, but since entering the starting lineup in Week 4 has been on a record-setting tear. He is the only rookie in NFL history to post four consecutive games with at least 125 yards rushing – averaging a whopping 141.5 yards in those starts – and his 115-yard average in five games played is the best in the NFL this year by more than 20 yards.
The two teams are almost a mirror image, built on a power running game on offense and strong defenses. The Rams have five former first-round draft picks on their defensive line with Robert Quinn leading the way with five sacks ( Aaron Donald has 4½) and collectively the Rams lead the NFC with 26 sacks. The Vikings can also generate a pass rush, with Everson Griffen having two sacks and an interception for a touchdown in his last two meetings with the Rams.
Most games are hyped for their quarterback play, but this one will feature the power running games and strong defense.
Oakland Raiders (4-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
Given their recent histories, it might be surprising to see that Mike Tomlin is only 1-3 against the Raiders, including a 21-18 loss in 2013, their most recent meeting.
QB Ben Roethlisberger is back for the Steelers, but Oakland’s Derek Carr is actually out-performing him so far. Carr’s 15 touchdowns are tied for third in the AFC, as is his 105.7 passer rating, and he has only three interceptions. He has two or more touchdown passes in five of his last six games. Roethlisberger, who missed time with an injury, has only five touchdown tosses but also has five interceptions, and now he will be without star running back Le'Veon Bell. DeAngelo Williams provides a nice, experienced fallback option with his 310 yards, 4.9-yard average and three touchdowns.
Carr has the dual threat of Michael Crabtree, Oakland’s leading receiver with 40 catches for 483 yards, and rookie sensation Amari Cooper, who is leading all NFL rookie receivers with 38 catches and 565 yards. RB Latavius Murray completes the well-rounder weaponry for Carr by averaging 93.8 scrimmage yards in his last nine games. Roethlisberger has last year’s top NFL receiver, Antonio Brown, who already has 718 yards receiving (third in the AFC) and three touchdowns, but they will have to be wary of ageless safety Charles Woodson, who leads the NFL with five interceptions.