Top storyline for each Week 9 NFL game

By Vincent Frank

From a huge outing in the NFC between the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers to a matchup of preseason AFC favorites, there are some great games around the NFL this week.

Behind those games are some pretty remarkable storylines.

Can the Cincinnati Bengals avenge their loss on national television to the Cleveland Browns last season? Will the Dallas Cowboys be able to end their five-game losing streak? These are among the top storylines for Week 9 of the NFL season.

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: can Cincinnati avenge last season’s loss and remain undefeated?

It might seem like a long time ago because it was, but once upon a time Cleveland absolutely obliterated Cincinnati on a Thursday night last season.

It came nearly a year ago to the day. Riding a strong defensive performance, the then last-place Browns handed Cincinnati a 24-3 home loss.

Andy Dalton completed 10-of-33 passes for 86 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions. Those three picks are one less than Dalton has thrown for the undefeated Bengals in seven games this year.

So much has changed since that surprising result. Dalton is playing at an elite level in his fifth NFL season, leading the league’s third-best scoring offense.

Defensively, Cincinnati ranks seventh in points allowed. That’s been aided by a unit that has racked up 20 sacks in seven games after recording the same amount all of last season. All this has Cincinnati with an undefeated record heading into Thursday night.

For the last-place Browns, it’s been pretty much the same story as season’s past. Uneven quarterback play mixed in with injuries to key players has this team with a 2-6 record heading into Week 9. It will be doing so with the enigmatic Johnny Manziel making his fourth career start. At the very least, fans in Cleveland can see what the team has in its young quarterback.

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: playing for playoff relevancy in the AFC

Courtesy of Jim Brown, USA Today Sports

Tied for last place in the AFC East heading into Week 9, the loser of this game will become irrelevant from a playoff standpoint heading into the stretch run. For the Bills, that’s a dramatic decline after winning three of their first five games.

For the Dolphins, it’s about getting back on track under interim head coach Dan Campbell after a humiliating defeat against the New England Patriots last week. This is a squad that was riding high following two blowout wins to start Campbell’s career as its interim coach.

Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they are going to have to find a way to stop a suddenly healthy Bills team without their top defensive player, Cameron Wake.

The primary key here for Buffalo — losers of three of its past four — will be to play more disciplined football. Here’s a squad that has committed 42 penalties while turning the ball over eight times in the past four games. It will help getting starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor back after he missed the past two games with a sprained MCL.

Not only do both teams have to worry about keeping pace with the New York Jets in the division, they have to think about both the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers when it comes to the wild card race. Getting to .500 is the first step here.

Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers: the struggles of Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Rodgers is coming off the worst performance of his career. He completed 14-of-22 passes for 77 yards without a touchdown in the Packers 29-10 loss to the Denver Broncos last week.

In what is a heck of a two-game stretch, Rodgers and the Packers must travel to Carolina to take on an undefeated Panthers team that has allowed the lowest opposing quarterback rating (64.5) in the NFL. The Randall Cobb-Josh Norman matchup is going to be aces here.

Green Bay still boasts the second-best record in the NFC, but this game is important for two reasons. It’s just one game ahead of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. More than that, a loss to the Panthers would put Green Bay in an unenviable position in the race for home field — two games back with a loss in the tie breaker.

Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets: intriguing matchup with potential playoff implications

Let this sink in for a second. At 2-5 on the season, the Jaguars are tied with Houston and Indianapolis in the loss column in the AFC South.

Based on the team’s talent level on offense and the struggles of the rest of the division, there’s no reason to believe Jacksonville can’t at least remain competitive in the division heading into December. A win here against New York would definitely add to that belief.

It’s going to be a difficult matchup against a Jets defense that ranks in the top eight of the NFL against the pass and has allowed 12 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions on the season.

With Blake Bortles turnover-prone tendencies (five interceptions in the past three games), it’s going to be important for Jacksonville to hold on to the ball here. If it is able to do that, an upset becomes much more likely.

On the other hand, the Jets need to find a way to stop what could become an extensive losing streak. After winning four of their first five games, this team has dropped two consecutive outings.

A win here would go a long way in cementing New York’s status as a playoff contender in the AFC. A loss, and the Jets can’t be considered anything more than a pretender.

St. Louis Rams at Minnesota Vikings: possible wild card tie-breaker

Courtesy of Jeff Curry, USA Today Sports

Heading into Week 9, Minnesota and the Atlanta Falcons would be the two wild card teams in the NFC with a number of squads in the mix.

Fresh off a two-game winning streak, the Rams surely are one of those squads. At 4-3 on the year, they have an opportunity to really make some noise here. The key will be to take advantage of the trenches and avoiding having to put Nick Foles in a position where he has to win the game.

With 529 total yards over the past four games, rookie running back Todd Gurley should have yet another solid game against a Vikings defense that is yielding 4.5 yards per rush. Meanwhile, the Rams defense has yielded the ninth-fewest rushing yards this season — an indication that it could keep Adrian Peterson in check.

At 5-2 on the season, Minnesota is right there in the NFC North race heading into Week 9. That’s simply amazing considering this team has played nowhere near its best football.

The thing to check out Sunday is Teddy Bridgewater’s growing relationship with rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The fifth-round pick from Maryland has tallied 25 receptions for 419 yards with two touchdowns in his first four NFL games. A win here against a solid Rams team could cement Minnesota’s status as a top contender in the conference.

Washington Redskins at New England Patriots: more of the same from Tom Brady’s Patriots?

Boasting the league’s top scoring offense at 35.6 points per game, New England has scored 30-plus in each of its past six games. Brady and Co. also rank fifth in the NFL in total offense at 415 yards per game. If the likes of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills can’t shut this team down, what makes anyone think the Redskins can?

Brady is on pace to have one of the best statistical seasons in the history of the league. He’s put up 20 touchdowns compared to one interception for an absurd 115.8 rating. For comparison’s sake, the future Hall of Fame quarterback tallied a 117.2 rating during his record-setting 2007 campaign.

Washington’s defense might be vastly improved, but it really doesn’t stand a chance against this high-scoring Patriots offense. The biggest mismatch here has to be Rob Gronkowski going up against one of the worst cover safeties in the NFL in Dashon Goldson. That could help lead to another dominating performance from Brady’s bunch.

Tennessee Titans at New Orleans Saints: Tennessee’s scheme change under Mike Mularkey

It will be interesting to see how the Titans come out on offense against a terrible Saints defense. Will Mularkey open up the team’s offense in his first game as its interim head coach?

With Marcus Mariota returning after a two-week absence due to a sprained MCL, the expectation here has to be that Tennessee will find a way to cater its offense more to the rookie’s strengths:

“I just told him (Mariota) we’re going to do a couple things different with him.” Mularkey said, via the Titans official site. “Try to make sure he stays upright and it was really just, not real in-depth. But we’re on the same page.”

That will likely include getting Mariota out of the pocket more than we saw prior to his injury. In his first five games, the reigning Heisman winner attempted just 10 rushes. Look for this to change drastically against a Saints defense that struggles out on the boundaries.

Tennessee has won a total of three games since the start of the 2014 season. That obviously led to the firing of Ken Whisenhunt as head coach earlier this week.

Interestingly, the team is just one game back in the loss column in the AFC South. While stopping short of anything relating to playoff talk, there is an opportunity for the Titans to improve a great deal moving forward.

Oakland Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers: a further opportunity for the Raiders to prove their worth

Courtesy of Cary Edmondson, USA Today Sports

At 4-3 on the season and coming off two consecutive stellar performances, the Raiders are thinking playoffs entering the second half of the season for the first time in ages. It sure helps that they just dominated a New York Jets team that will be in the wild card conversation.

Now taking on a Steelers squad that’s also going to be in the playoff conversation, Sunday’s game gives Oakland a real opportunity to gain a major upper-hand in the conference.

Oakland has some decided advantages here, none more so than Derek Carr and the passing game. Pittsburgh’s pass defense ranks 26th in the NFL at nearly 270 yards per game. Meanwhile, Carr has tallied seven touchdowns compared to zero picks in the past two games.

With both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree representing mismatches on the outside, the second-year quarterback should have yet another big game. If so, the Raiders could very well be looking at a 5-3 record.

New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: road team in need of a “get right” game

New York might be in the mix for the NFC East title and a potential wild card spot, but this team is going nowhere fast with the sad excuse of a defense it is throwing on the field right now. You simply can’t lose a game with your quarterback throwing six touchdowns and be taken seriously. That’s the harsh reality here.

It’s not going to be easy against a vastly improved Buccaneers team. While Eli Manning should have himself yet another big game following a six-touchdown performance last week, it’s the Giants defense that continues to be worrisome. This is a unit that ranks dead last in the NFL against the pass and is yielding 26 points per game.

Jameis Winston may be no Drew Brees, but he’s playing darn good football right now. After a four-interception performance against the Carolina Panthers back in Week 4, the rookie has thrown five touchdowns compared to zero picks in the past three games.

If he’s able to continue this stellar performance, Tampa Bay could find itself at .500 and with a better record than the Giants. That’s simply amazing.

Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers: the hot mess that is brewing in San Francisco

Now starting for your San Francisco 49ers, Blaine Gabbert. Yeah, this is pretty much the nightmare scenario no one could have envisioned just a year ago.

But here we are with San Francisco truly looking like the laughingstock of the NFL. That’s only magnified by the ridiculous benching of Colin Kaepernick and the maintaining of an offensive line group that’s among the worst in the NFL.

More so than the quarterback issue, there are lingering questions regarding both the coaching and front office management in San Francisco — questions that have led to a restless fan base and local media.

Short of the team providing some sense of hope on the field, these are questions that are going to follow San Francisco for the foreseeable future.

It’s an epic decline for an organization that just 14 months ago had a real shot at playing in Super Bowl 50 in its home stadium this upcoming February.

Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts: Chuck Pagano’s last hurrah?

By firing offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton this week, Pagano pretty much signaled that he understood his job was on the line. You don’t create a fall guy in that manner without knowing that you could be without a job at some point soon.

For the Colts head coach, it could come as early as the team’s Week 9 bye following its game against the undefeated Broncos on Sunday.

The only way to stem this tide is to find a way to win against Peyton Manning and Co. Unfortunately for the Colts, firing Hamilton isn’t going to magically help this squad overcome a slow first half of the season.

That’s going to be up to Andrew Luck to perform up to the level that we know he’s capable of — something he simply hasn’t done this year.

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: important divisional game for both squads

Sam Bradford Eagles

Teams don’t lose six consecutive games in a season and find a way to make the playoffs. Over the course of the past 35 years, only two teams that have lost six straight have gone on to earn a postseason spot.

The Cincinnati Bengals of 1970 started 1-6 before finishing the season with seven consecutive wins. And last season, the Carolina Panthers lost six consecutive prior to running off a four-game winning streak to end the year as the NFC South champs. This is the uphill battle Dallas will have to climb should it lose on Sunday against the Eagles.

For Philadelphia, it’s all about finding some sense of consistency. At 3-4 on the season, Chip Kelly and Co. are very much alive in the substandard NFC East. However, it needs to find some success in a passing game that was dead on arrival the first time Sam Bradford dropped back to pass in an Eagles uniform.

Chicago Bears at San Diego Chargers: “Life in Pieces” is a good new show on Monday night

I got nothing for you here. Outside of fantasy football, there is very little intrigue to this game. Chicago and San Diego boast a 4-11 record with their four wins coming against teams with a combined 10 victories on the campaign.

Neither Keenan Allen nor Matt Forte — normally the game’s two-best players — will be sidelined. Meanwhile, the affair will take place at a venue in San Diego without much of a football atmosphere.

Seriously, “Life in Pieces” is a darn funny television show. After a Sunday filled with what should be drama-filled football, we all might want to step away from the game for a bit. Then again, it’s a regular season football game. As you might already know, we will be begging for a similar game come May.