With the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals all on a bye, some of the NFL’s best talent is sitting Week 9 out.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some tremendous matchups to keep up on as the league begins the second half of the season.
A specific game in Oakland between the Raiders and defending champion Denver Broncos is most noteworthy. Not only are the two teams battling for first place in the AFC West, they’re battling for a potential first-round bye.
It’s in this that the likes of Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack, Von Miller and Aqib Talib will look to help their respective teams collect a big win in front of a national audience.
Over in the NFC, the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings are both looking to get back in the win column in this all-norse division matchup. What will Xavier Rhodes and Marvin Jones have to say about the outcome up north?
These are among the top-10 matchups for Week 9 of the NFL season.
1. Oakland Raiders offensive line vs Denver Broncos pass rush
Derek Carr leads the NFL with 323 pass attempts heading into Week 9. He’s been sacked a total of nine times. This tells us a story of a Raiders offensive line that’s been in domination mode in terms of pass protection.
Heck, Carr tossed the rock around Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Sunday to the tune of 513 yards and four touchdowns on 59 pass attempts, the third-year quarterback was sacked just twice. That’s an absurd level of performance from the Raiders’ offensive tackles.
Though, Sunday night is going to be a completely different story against the onslaught that is the Denver Broncos’ defense. In eight games this season, Denver is tied with the Buffalo Bills for the most sacks in the NFL at 28. This has Wade Phillips’ unit on pace to best its sack total from last year’s historical defensive run.
For the Raiders, it’s more than imperative that they give Carr the protection he needs to hit Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree down the field. That’s only magnified by the presence of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby in Denver’s secondary.
With both teams boasting a 6-2 record heading into Sunday Night Football in Oakland, this one particular matchup within the larger construct of the game could play a huge role.
2. Mike Evans vs Desmond Trufant
Including last week, Evans has received 10-plus targets in each of the past six games. Unfortunately for the talented young receiver and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he caught just 4-of-11 targets for 50 yards in an overtime loss to Oakland.
That’s most definitely going to have to change this upcoming weekend against an Atlanta Falcons defense that relies a great deal on Trufant shutting down one side of the field.
More than that, Trufant has proven himself more than capable of shadowing the other team’s top receiver throughout his young and already brilliant career.
As with his division rival, Trufant is actually coming off a substandard performance himself.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) October 30, 2016
In addition to that 21-yard catch, Nelson caught two more passes on Trufant. Heck, the Pro Bowler allowed more receptions this past Sunday than he allowed in his previous three games combined.
Should Trufant find a way to return to form here, it will force Jameis Winston away from his comfort zone. And by virtue of the nine interceptions the quarterback has thrown on the season, that could lead to him forcing the ball.
Whether that’s to Trufant’s side of the field really doesn’t matter. It will impact Tampa’s ability to succeed through the air and could lead to some mistakes from Winston.
3. Amari Cooper vs Aqib Talib
Assuming Talib is able to go after missing last week’s game with a back injury, this promises to be one of the best matchups of the season. While the Denver Broncos’ secondary did step up in Talib’s absence last week against the San Diego Chargers, he’s still the team’s best cornerback.
Pro Football Focus' top 3 cornerback grades in NFL: 1. DEN Aqib Talib (13.7) 2. DEN Chris Harris (9.8). 3. HOU A.J. Bouye, 9.6. #9sports
— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) November 1, 2016
Overall this season, Talib is yielding a sub 30 quarterback rating with three interceptions, 11 passes defended and a touchdown. If he’s on the field, the Pro Bowler will be tasked with shutting down one of the top young receivers in the game.
Cooper is coming off a ridiculous performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. He caught 12-of-15 targets for 173 yards and a touchdown in the Raiders’ overtime win. With 80 targets through eight games, Cooper has been relied on as much as any other receiver in the NFL. That includes the likes of A.J. Green, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.
Don’t expect Derek Carr to shy away from Cooper with sole possession of first place on the line Sunday night in Oakland. It’s in this that the best game of Week 9 could be decided.
4. Terrelle Pryor vs Dallas Cowboys secondary
If the winless Cleveland Browns have one advantage against a red-hot Dallas Cowboys team, it has to here. Not only has Pryor proven himself to be more than a capable No. 1 wide receiver, he’s slated to take on a Cowboys defense that’s paper thin at the cornerback position.
Morris Claiborne is sidelined with a groin injury and won’t play this weekend. Meanwhile, Orlando Scandrick missed five games earlier in the year with a hamstring injury. It’s not yet known whether he is 100 percent after finally taking the field last week against the Philadelphia Eagles.
While all the talk in Dallas has surrounded rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ secondary has exceeded expectations in a big way. For his part, Claiborne is finally performing like the player that made him a top-10 pick back in 2012. With him out of action, the onus is going to be on Scandrick and veteran Brandon Carr to pick up the slack.
If Cleveland is going to find a way to pull an upset and get its first win of the season, Pryor must continue to dominate on the outside. It happened last week when he torched the New York Jets for six receptions and 101 yards in the first half. Unfortunately, Pryor was shut out in the second half as Cleveland blew a two-score lead. We can’t see a repeat performance of that this weekend.
5. Doug Baldwin vs Stephon Gilmore
As the Seattle Seahawks’ offense has shown signs of struggles over the past two games, Baldwin remains somewhat of a constant for the team. While not spectacular in the grand scheme of things, Baldwin has caught 10-of-15 passes for 120 yards during this span.
If Russell Wilson is going to somehow find a way to get back on track after tallying five touchdowns in the season’s first seven games, he’s going to need Baldwin and fellow pass catcher Jimmy Graham (more on him later) to step up.
Fortunately for Baldwin and the Seahawks, they’re taking on a Buffalo Bills defense that was absolutely destroyed through the air by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots last week.
In fact, Gilmore himself yielded four caches for 105 yards and a score against the Pats in Week 8. That’s bad. Really bad. And it points to just how much Gilmore has underperformed in his contract year.
Playing at home against an east coast opponent on Monday night, Seattle should be able to get back on track this week. If that doesn’t happen, it will speak to widespread issues moving into the second half of the season.
6. Donald Stephenson vs Khalil Mack
Mack has been relatively quiet for the Oakland Raiders after tallying up 15 sacks as a sophomore last season. In eight games thus far this year, the Pro Bowler has recorded just five sacks and ranks outside of the top 20 in his position in quarterback hurries.
Some of this has to do with the Raiders continuing to scheme him into coverage. Yes folks, that still makes absolutely no sense. He’s the type of player that simply needs to pin his ears back and get to the quarterback.
If the Raiders are going to turn their 6-2 start to the season into legitimate conference title contention, they must make sure Mack is more involved in the offensive backfield.
That could potentially come at home against the Denver Broncos in Week 8. In a battle for first place, Oakland will find itself facing a fierce Broncos pass rush. Why not attempt to turn the table on Trevor Siemian?
That has to be the thought process for Jack Del Rio and Co., especially considering Broncos right tackle Donald Stephenson has struggled in is first season with the team. Heck, just check out how bad San Diego Chargers rookie Joey Bosa made him look last week.
With C.J. Anderson on injured reserve and Devontae Booker nursing an injury of his own, Denver might be forced to go to the air more often than it would like. It’s in this that Mack must make his presence known in order for the Raiders to head into Week 10 in sole possession of first place in the AFC West.
7. Jimmy Graham vs Preston Brown
Yet another matchup between a Seahawks pass catcher and the Bills’ pass defense. Last week saw us focus on how well Brown has performed against New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in determining that as one of the top matchups for Week 8. Boy, did Brown prove us wrong there. Gronkowski ended up catching 5-of-7 targets for 109 yards and a score in New England’s blowout win over the Bills.
In order for Buffalo to pull off an upset this week, it’s going to need the middle of the team’s defense to perform well against Graham. That much isn’t even up for debate.
Despite putting up just three catches for 34 yards in his return to New Orleans last week, Graham has more than proven himself to once again be one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the NFL.
He’s averaging 5.2 receptions and 77.8 yards over the past five games. In the 10 games prior to that, Graham averaged less than four receptions and under 50 receiving yards.
It might not seem like a major difference. That’s until we realize other Seattle pass catchers behind Baldwin and Graham have failed to do much at all this season.
If the Seahawks are going to get back on the winning track Monday night, they’ll need another big performance from Graham.
8. Taylor Decker vs Everson Griffen
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen remains one of the most unheralded players on the best unit in the NFL. He’s coming off a Week 8 performance that saw him put up a sack and four more hurries of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. This has Griffen in some great company heading into the second half of the season.
He now ranks among the top-three 4-3 defensive ends in quarterback hurries on the season. Add in the five sacks Griffen has recorded in seven games, and it’s readily apparent he’s among the most-consistent defensive players in the NFL.
On the other hand, Decker has held up extremely well as Matthew Staffford’s blindside protector as a rookie. The Ohio State product has allowed a total of five quarterback pressures since an horrible performance against the Green Bay Packers in Week 3.
If Detroit is going to find a way to get back in the win column and send Minnesota to a third consecutive loss, it will need Decker to perform at a high level against Griffen. Should that not happen, we can surely expect a ball-hawking Vikes defense to force a few mistakes come Sunday.
9. Marvin jones vs Xavier Rhodes
Jones is coming off the worst performance of his Lions career last week. He caught just 3-of-7 targets for 33 yards in a loss to the Houston Texans. It’s not a coincidence that Detroit took on the league’s second-best pass defense in that game. In fact, Jones has really done nothing more than torch some bad pass defenses thus far this season.
In three games against top-12 pass defenses, Jones has caught just 50 percent of the passes thrown in his direction and is averaging less than four catches per game. In his other five outings, the free-agent signing is catching nearly five passes while hauling in 67 percent of the balls thrown in his direction.
Unfortunately for the Lions, they’re slated to take on a Vikings pass defense that ranks in the top four in the NFL and is allowing the second-lowest quarterback rating in the league. For his part, Rhodes has been absolutely dominant against the game’s best thus far on the season.
Xavier Rhodes against DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr and Alshon Jeffery. Eight receptions, 89 yards pic.twitter.com/hQnuAOBHHl
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 1, 2016
That’s some flat out brilliance right there. And it’s now up to Jones to break both trends come Sunday night. Should that not happen, Detroit will be looking at a two-game losing streak heading into its bye.
10. Allen Robinson vs Marcus Peters
This seemed to be an elite-level matchup at the start of the season. That’s until Blake Bortles regressed to Blaine Gabbert levels, Jaguars offensive coordinator Greg Olson showed why he was jettisoned from Oakland and Gus Bradley found his fall guy in the aforementioned Olson. Needless to say, the first half of the season has not gone according to plan for Jacksonville.
While Robinson’s stats suggest he’s had a terrible season, the primary reason for his lack of production can be found in the three factors listed above. All said, the third-year receiver has caught 32 passes for 366 yards in seven games. More alarming than that, he boasts an absurdly low 46 percent catch rate.
Now set to take on a corner in Marcus Peters who led the NFL with eight interceptions as a rookie and is atop that list with five thos season, Robinson surely has his work cut out for him.
Unfortunately for Jacksonville, this promises to end one of two ways. Either Bortles is going to avoid his top receiver completely or the embattled quarterback will fall victim to Peters’ ball-hawking ability. If door No. 3 shows up and there’s some sort of connection found here, Jacksonville might be able to pull the upset. Though, that’s a rather lofty expectation after what we’ve seen from the Jags thus far this season.