Green Bay Packers (6-3) at Minnesota Vikings (7-2)
No one figured the Vikings would be in a position have a two-game lead over the Packers if they win on Sunday, especially after the Packers started 6-0. Now, however, the Packers are reeling on a three-game losing streak and the Vikings are on a five-game winning streak.
Don’t expect the Packers to panic, however, as Mike McCarthy owns a 14-4-1 record over the Vikings and Mike Zimmer is 0-for-2 against Green Bay in his short stint in Minnesota. Still, the Packers can’t afford to R-E-L-A-X right now. A loss at TCF Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 4-0 this year and where Teddy Bridgewater is on a seven-game winning streak, would give Minnesota a two-game lead over Green Bay with a win in hand and an undefeated NFC North record while the Packers would have two divisional losses.
So what’s wrong with the Packers and what’s right with the Vikings?
The Packers are struggling to get separation with their receivers, a group that has been without Jordy Nelson all season, and former NFL coach Tony Dungy says opponents have figured out how to stop the Packers: keep Aaron Rodgers in the pocket. Despite the presence of Rodgers, Green Bay is ranked only 20th in their passing game, while their shuffling backfield of James Starks and Eddie Lacy is seventh in rushing.
Rodgers is still second in the NFC with a 103.4 passer rating, but he hasn’t been above 100 the last three games, the longest stretch like that for him since 2012. Even so, Rodgers has won nine of his last 10 in Minnesota and a 123.8 rating against the Vikings with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Vikings, meanwhile are winning with defense, the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson and timely special teams contributions. Peterson leads the NFL by more than 200 yards with his 961 yards rushing, ran for 203 yards last week, and has the 31st-ranked Green Bay rushing defense on Sunday. Peterson has rushed for 1,747 yards and 11 touchdowns in 15 meetings with the Packers. In his last 15 games at home, he is averaging 125.4 yards and one touchdown. Bridgewater hasn’t been explosive for the Vikings, but he has managed his ways to wins on a regular basis and has been strong in the fourth quarter when the Vikings needed comebacks.
But with Peterson and the top-ranked rushing attack and the NFL’s No. 1 defense in points allowed, Bridgwater hasn’t needed to force the issue on a 7-2 team.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-1) at Arizona Cardinals (7-2)
The Bengals were knocked from the perch of the undefeated teams on Monday night and face another prime-time matchup on Sunday night. This time, the opponent appears better than the Houston Texans, who beat the Bengals in Week 10.
Carson Palmer is second in the NFC with 2,749 yards, first with 23 touchdowns and first with a 108.0 passer rating … and he was the No. 1 overall pick of the Bengals in 2003. Palmer is on a roll with the NFL’s top offense, winning 20 of his last 24 start, is 11-2 in his past 13 home games and his 23 touchdown passes are the most for a Cardinals quarterback in the first nine games of a season. It helps that he has a running game that can be explosive, too. Chris Johnson is averaging 105 yards per game and a touchdown in his last three home games, and Andre Ellington and David Johnson offer strong support. David Johnson is second among rookies with six touchdowns – three rushing, two receiving and one on a kickoff return.
The Cardinals also have playmakers on defense. They are tied for the NFL lead with 14 interceptions and four players – Rashad Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson and Patrick Peterson – all have two or more.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton has won four straight on the road, passing for 1,126 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions in those games and needs one more road win to break the record he currently shares with Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan for most road wins (currently at 23) in a quarterback’s first five seasons. Dalton is third in the AFC with a 104.6 passer rating with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions, backed with a strong set of receivers.
A.J. Green has 47 catches for 661 yards and TE Tyler Eifert leads with the NFL with nine touchdown catches. And the one-two backfield punch of Giovani Bernard, averaging 120 scrimmage yards in his past four games against the NFC, and Jeremy Hill, who has four touchdowns in the past six games, offers a balanced attack that has the Bengals No. 7 in overall offense.
Buffalo Bills (5-4) at New England Patriots (9-0)
Bill Belichick has won seven of his last eight against the Bills, and first-year Buffalo coach Rex Ryan is throwing the compliments the Patriots’ way.
In September, the Patriots won a 40-32 shootout as Tom Brady passed for 466 yards and three touchdowns and Julian Edelman caught 11 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns. This time, however, could be different. Edelman is out for the first game this year and the Patriots will be forced to adapt once again. That could mean a heavier dose of TE Rob Gronkowski, who has 806 yards, is averaging 16.8 yards per catch and is tied for second in the NFL with eight touchdown catches in the AFC’s top offense.
This game features two of the three most efficient quarterbacks in the league. Brady has been both efficient and productive, racking up 3,043 yards passing and 24 touchdowns for a 111.1 rating – all marks that lead the NFL – with only three interceptions. But Tyrod Taylor is enjoying a strong initial season as the Bills’ starter, throwing 11 touchdowns and only four interceptions for a 106.2 rating, third in the league. If Taylor can sustain that rating for the rest of the year, he will pass Jim Kelly for the highest single-season rating in Bills history, and Buffalo has won four of the last five starts for Taylor as he has passed for 999 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception in that span.
It helps that he has LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams in the backfield. McCoy is averaging 119 scrimmage yards in his past four games and Williams has a touchdown in each of his last six games, just one of two players in NFL history with a touchdown in each of his first six career games.
But Taylor will be facing the defensive mastery of Belichick, who has Chandler Jones’ league-leading 10½ sacks, with Jamie Collins not far behind with 8½ sacks. The Patriots are ranked second in overall defense and second pass defense. And, while the Patriots have the second-ranked rushing attack, the Bills have the second-ranked run defense.