Suppose you were told the New Orleans Saints could run the ball and play defense, and Drew Brees was still their quarterback.
And you were informed that the Los Angeles Rams had a dynamic offense to go with a physical defense.
What you would have is a terrific matchup of division leaders. It happens Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
New Orleans (8-2) is showing more balance than at any time since Brees arrived in 2006 and began setting passing records.
Los Angeles Rams has made a swift and impressive turnaround under first-year coach Sean McVay, who has quarterback Jared Goff playing like a first overall draft selection should.
The Saints started with two losses and haven’t been on the short end of the score since.
”Specifically, we opened at Minnesota, which is obviously a good football team and a tough place to play, and didn’t play well enough,” coach Sean Payton says.
”And then the following week versus New England. I think we did as a team feel like those next two weeks on the road at Carolina and then on the road to London – we went right from Carolina to London – we felt that two-game stretch was going to be critical for this team if we were going to aspire to do something.
”I think Carolina was a good win for us … and then carried it over to London for the second win before our bye. That two-game stretch would certainly be, not just because it was our first two wins, but it was building some confidence and that you can think it or wish it or hope to have it, but it generally just comes from demonstrated ability.”
The similar demonstrated ability has been present with the Rams. Except they didn’t struggle early, instead winning three of their first four. Wade Phillips’ defense has scored 84 points off 19 turnovers. Phillips was the Saints defensive coordinator from 1981-85, and interim head coach for four weeks after father Bum was fired.
In the three Thanksgiving games, the Los Angeles Chargers beat Dallas 28-6, Minnesota topped Detroit 30-23, and Washington beat the New York Giants 20-10,
In Arlington, Texas, Philip Rivers threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns, and Desmond King returned an interception 90 yards for the punctuating touchdown for San Diego. The Chargers (5-6) moved within 1 1/2 games of AFC West-leading Kansas City. The defending NFC East champion Cowboys (5-6) lost their third straight by at least 20 points, all without star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
In Detroit, Case Keenum threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score – all in the first half – for Minnesota. The Vikings (9-2) won their seventh straight and took a three-game lead over second-place Detroit (6-5) in the NFC North.
In Landover, Maryland, Kirk Cousins threw two touchdown passes to compensate for a pick-6, and Washington beat New York,
Cousins led Washington (5-6) on two TD drives in the second half, connecting with Jamison Crowder on a 15-yarder in the third quarter that broke a 3-all tie, and with Josh Doctson on a 14-yarder with 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the game.
The Giants dropped to 2-9.
Carolina (7-3) at New York Jets (4-6)
Tampa Bay (4-6) at Atlanta (6-4)
This is the epitome of the trap game for the Panthers, who next face division leaders New Orleans and Minnesota. But they also come off a bye, when coach Ron Rivera surely was reminding his players not to get careless.
Carolina is showing lots of balance now as Cam Newton has overcome an inconsistent early portion of the season. The defense has been lights-out.
New York also was off last week.
Here’s a cool fact: Panthers DE Julius Peppers and Jets QB Josh McCown are the only players still active who were drafted in 2002. Peppers went No. 2 overall to Carolina, while McCown was a third-round selection (No. 81 overall) by Arizona.
The Falcons escaped in Seattle on Monday night, and now face one of Matt Ryan’s patsies. In the past seven home games against Tampa Bay, Ryan has 14 TDs and one interception.
The Bucs come off their best performance this season, routing Miami and forcing five turnovers while not having any. Mike Evans has prospered against Atlanta, with five TDs in his past five meetings. He won’t have Jameis Winston throwing to him, though, as Ryan Fitzpatrick, a winner in the past two games, goes again for the injured starter.
Fitz needs to look out for Adrian Clayborn. The DE has six sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown in the past two games.
Jacksonville (7-3) at Arizona (4-6)
Tennessee (6-4) at Indianapolis (3-7)
The AFC South’s leader and runner-up hit the road against teams they should handle.
Jacksonville handles everyone roughly with that sack-happy defense ranked No. 1 overall. Teams can run a bit on the Jaguars, so Adrian Peterson might be busy for Arizona.
But the Cardinals are down to their No. 3 quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, who had better know where former Cardinals DE Calais Campbell is at all times.
This is Jacksonville’s first appearance at University of Phoenix Stadium, which opened in 2006.
Winning at Indy has been problematic for the Titans. They have lost nine straight road games to the Colts and are still seeking first win at Lucas Oil Stadium. They will need better work from Marcus Mariota, who threw four picks in last week’s loss to Pittsburgh. With the Colts ranking 30th in pass defense, Mariota should do well.
A big game by Indy RB Frank Gore will move him up the career rushing list. Gore needs 89 yards to pass Jerome Bettis (13,662) for sixth place, and 111 yards to pass LaDainian Tomlinson (13,684) for fifth.
Green Bay (5-5) at Pittsburgh (8-2)
Brett Hundley and the Packers took a Lambeau Leap backward in being blanked by Baltimore. Any playoff aspirations are fading fast on the tundra, and the Pack hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 1970. That was even before the Steel Curtain emerged.
Pittsburgh has won five straight since a 3-2 start. This is the second of four straight prime-time games for the Steelers, who are 32-16 in prime time under coach Mike Tomlin. Pittsburgh is 23-7 in night games at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001.
Houston (4-6) at Baltimore (5-5) Monday night
Even though this seems to have little attraction, the fact both of these squads are alive in playoff scenarios brings some interest.
Baltimore already has three shutout wins, including last weekend in Green Bay. The previous time the Ravens had such gaudy defensive stats, they were winning Super Bowls with Ray Lewis at inside linebacker. The Ravens are 11-1 in prime time under coach John Harbaugh. Their nine-game winning streak in prime time is the longest active run in the NFL.
Players to watch on injury-ravaged Houston are DE Jadeveon Clowney, who aims for a fifth straight game with a sack, and WR DeAndre Hopkins, who has 62 catches for 879 yards and nine TDs.
Miami (4-6) at New England (8-2)
That freight train running through the AFC is what everyone feared when the season began: New England on a roll.
The Patriots have won six in a row, and they are blowing out opponents. Now, they get an undermanned Dolphins squad that last won in Foxborough in 2008, when Tom Brady was sidelined by a knee injury.
Overall, Miami has dropped four straight and hasn’t led at the start of a fourth quarter all season. The Dolphins have one rushing touchdown, last in the NFL.
With a victory, the Patriots will guarantee a winning record for the 17th straight season, breaking a tie with the 49ers (1983-98) and Cowboys (1970-85) for most consecutive winning seasons since the 1970 merger.
Buffalo (5-5) at Kansas City (6-4)
While the Chiefs’ Alex Smith is struggling, at least he doesn’t have to worry about a QB carousel. Smith had 18 TD throws without a pick to start the season. He’s thrown three interceptions without a touchdown since as KC has lost four of five.
Bills coach Sean McDermott goes back to veteran Tyrod Taylor after McDermott’s gamble to start Nate Peterman backfired at San Diego as the untested rookie was picked off five times in one half. Also of concern is how Buffalo’s defense has sprung leaks.
Chicago (3-7) at Philadelphia (9-1)
Mismatch City? It would look that way, particularly because the one thing the Bears do pretty well is run the ball with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Philly, however, has the NFL’s top rushing defense.
The Eagles are at 9-1 for the fifth time in franchise history. They won the NFL championship the first two times (1946, 1960), lost the Super Bowl in the other two (1980, 2004). They also have scored 20 points in 14 straight games, the league’s longest current streak.
”Listen, this is the National Football League and you’re seeing it every week: If you don’t come ready to play, you’ll get your tail beat,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson says.
”This is no different this week. This is a good football team we’re playing. Their record might be a different way and they have had some injuries, particularly on defense now, but it’s still a good football team, and they probably should have won that game last week, and they have been in some close games this year. So you can’t go to sleep on these (guys).”
Seattle (6-4) at San Francisco (1-9)
Once a bitter rivalry that extended into playoff games, this one has hit the rocks because the 49ers have, well, hit the rocks. The Seahawks have won eight straight in the series beginning with the NFC title game in January 2014.
With all of their injuries on defense, though, they might need another heroic performance from Russell Wilson, even against the lowly Niners. Wilson needs one win to break a tie with Joe Flacco and become the winningest QB in his first six years with 63.
San Francisco comes off its only win, against the Giants, and a bye.
Denver (3-7) at Oakland (4-6)
Whatever happened to the AFC West being the NFL’s best division?
The collapses of these two teams, that’s what.
Denver has lost six straight, the longest single-season skid since 1990. The previous time the Broncos lost seven in a row was during a nine-game streak in 1967 that concluded with a 51-0 loss at Oakland in the AFL days.
Coincidentally, both clubs fired coordinators this week, Oakland releasing Ken Norton Jr., from the defense, while Mike McCoy got the ax from Denver’s offense. One reason Norton is gone: Oakland is tied for fewest takeaways through 10 games in NFL history with six.
Cleveland (0-10) at Cincinnati (4-6)
If it wasn’t for the wide-open race for the final AFC wild-card playoff spot, no one outside of the Buckeye state likely would be watching.
The Bengals have won six straight in the series and 20 of the past 26. A loss here and they don’t deserve to be thinking about potentially sneaking into the postseason.
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