By NOAH TRISTER, BRETT MARTEL, JOE REEDY, ANDREW SELIGMAN, BOB BAUM, GREG BEACHAM
The Associated Press
Saturday, November 17, 2018
DETROIT; NEW ORLEANS; CARSON, CALIF. ;LAKE FOREST, ILL.; GLENDALE, ARIZ. ;LOS ANGELES -- PANTHERS AT LIONS Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions have three straight home games coming up - probably their last chance to turn their season around and make a run at a playoff spot.
The opposition is formidable, though.
After three consecutive losses, the Lions host Carolina on Sunday. That game is followed by a Thanksgiving matchup with Chicago and another home test against the NFC West-leading Rams.
There's time for Detroit to rally, but the path forward looks difficult.
"I think everybody's doing everything they can to try and get us going," said Stafford, whose team has scored only 20 first-half points over the past three games. "I think it's a total team effort. Everybody's trying to play better at all positions."
The Lions (3-6) will face a Carolina team that's in a much better spot, although the Panthers (6-3) are trying to rebound as well from their most recent outing, a 52-21 loss to the Steelers on Nov. 8.
The 52 points allowed tied the most in franchise history. Pittsburgh scored on seven of its first eight possessions.
"I don't think that is indicative of who we are as a football team," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
"One game is not going to define who we are going forward. It is an example of what happens if we don't play to our abilities and stick to our fundamentals, don't play the defence, offence or special teams play the way that it is called."
The Lions and Panthers are in different divisions, but they did meet last season, when Carolina won 27-24 in Detroit. Cam Newton threw for three touchdowns in that game, while Stafford threw for two.
The Lions are 28th in the NFL against the run, and now they'll have to face Carolina's versatile running back Christian McCaffrey, who has seven touchdowns in the past three weeks. McCaffrey has run 45 times for 201 yards and caught 14 passes for 150 yards during that span.
EAGLES AT SAINTS If the Philadelphia Eagles are to snap out of their Super Bowl hangover and re-establish a measure of credibility to their title defence, this would be the week to do it.
The Eagles (4-5) visit the Superdome on Sunday to take on the Saints (8-1), whose eight straight victories represent the longest active winning streak in the NFL.
When the season began, the Eagles' visit looked like one of the tougher games on New Orleans' schedule. Now, odds makers are listing the surging Saints, who lead the NFL in scoring with 36.7 points per game, as favourites by more than a touchdown.
Still, the Saints sound wary of underestimating the team that upended the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl just nine months ago.
"They're still a good team no matter what their record is," Saints running back Alvin Kamara insisted. "They wouldn't have won last year if they didn't have the talent."
Kamara's take is no surprise to Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson, who asserted that when you're the defending champs, "you get everybody's best each week."
Pederson even recalled pep talks he gave his team last season in which he said, "Listen, if you want to be one of the best teams in the league, we have to beat the best. And I know teams are saying that about us, and we just haven't lived up to how we're capable of playing in a couple of situations this year."
They need to start living up to their capabilities now. A loss in New Orleans, combined with a Washington win, would put the Eagles three games down in the NFC East with six games left.
That makes Philadelphia the more desperate team in this game, and in the NFL, a combination of talent and desperation can be dangerous.
BRONCOS AT CHARGERS Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers offence have been sensational during their six-game winning streak. The veteran quarterback noted this week as they prepare for Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos that things can turn south quickly.
"We haven't won six in a row in a while, but it can be a one-game losing streak just like that. So I think, again, it's week to week," Rivers said. "Again, now we've reset and get ready for the Broncos on Sunday."
The Chargers (7-2) have one of the league's most-balanced offences. Rivers is third in the league with a 115.4 passer rating and running back Melvin Gordon is third in yards from scrimmage (1,033).
Rivers has been sacked only 12 times, the third least among quarterbacks who have started nine or more games. But the Broncos have one of the NFL's best pass-rushing duos in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who have combined for a leaguehigh 17 sacks.
Miller, who has nine sacks this season, has sacked Rivers 15 times since entering the league as the second overall pick in 2011. That is the most by an active player against an active QB.
"I'm a big Philip Rivers fan. I feel like he's always played great, but the difference this year is he doesn't have as many interceptions," Miller said.
"He can make all the throws but he don't take all the shots. He is still accurate as hell, the running game is lights out and he has a pretty good team."
Miller added that the biggest difference with the Chargers this season is they are relying more on the running game with Gordon and Austin Ekeler, which has allowed Rivers to take fewer risks.
Chubb, the fifth overall pick in last April's draft, has 61/2 of his eight sacks over the past four games.
VIKINGS AT BEARS Mitchell Trubisky understands how high the stakes are.
The Chicago Bears have a chance to tighten their grip on the NFC North lead and demonstrate just how far they have come when they host the defending division champion Minnesota Vikings in a prime-time showdown for first place Sunday night.
"It's a huge opportunity to show the world what we're about and make a statement in our division," Trubisky said.
It has been a long time since the Bears (6-3) have been in a spot like this.
They endured four straight last-place finishes before a resurgence this year brought on by an off-season overhaul and the progress of Trubisky, their prized quarterback, in his second season.
They're in sole possession of the division lead for the first time since 2013. They've won three in a row for the second time this season after beating Detroit last week to snap a 10-game skid against division opponents.
And a victory over Minnesota (5-3-1) would give the Bears their longest win streak since a six-game run in 2012. But the Vikings are also on a roll, having won four of five.
Both teams boast top-five defenses. Chicago leads the NFL with 16 interceptions and ranks second in takeaways with 24.
Points could be hard to come by for both teams.
"TV-wise, it's probably boring, you know?" Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said.
"Guys don't want to sit there and watch an 8-7 game, but those games are fun for us. They might not be fun for the offence, but they're still fun for us."
Chicago coach Matt Nagy's scheme uses a lot of presnap motions by running backs and wide receivers designed to confuse the defense. But the Vikings have faced plenty of that in previous games against the Rams and Eagles.
"Still got to hike the ball," Richardson said. "It don't mess with us too much. Don't get caught up in the eye candy. That's it. Read your keys. They'll tell you where they're going." RAIDERS AT CARDINALS It's not exactly a clash of titans at State Farm Stadium on Sunday.
The Oakland Raiders, with the NFL's worst record at 1-8, drag a five-game losing streak into their game with the Arizona Cardinals, who at 2-7 are tied for the third-worst record in the league.
Both teams look at this as a game they realistically can win, while a loss will make a bad season much uglier.
It's a matchup of first-year coaches with Jon Gruden in Oakland and Steve Wilks in Arizona. It has been a bumpy ride for both.
"They're going to be ready. This is the National Football League, and I told the guys this morning that you can throw the record out the window," Wilks said. "These guys are coming here to win a football game. They're down. They need a win just like we need one. So, we better make sure that we're prepared and ready to play."
Gruden knows there are those who believe his team is "tanking" to get a high pick in next year's draft.
"If you pay attention to that stuff, anybody that says that, I don't agree with, but I can't control what's out there," he said. "We've had to make some tough decisions, and everybody's going to have their own opinion, but I know what the reality is. I know what the truth is and we're doing everything that we feel like is in the best interest of the Raiders, not only for this year, but for the future.
"When you're the head coach, you're going to take criticism, and that's just the way it is."
Arizona's offence showed some life after Wilks fired offensive co-ordinator Mike McCoy and elevated Byron Leftwich to the job. In last week's loss to the Chiefs, Arizona running back David Johnson had a season-best 183 yards from scrimmage, 98 rushing and 85 receiving. He scored both Cardinals touchdowns.
CHIEFS AT RAMS Sean McVay has looked up to Andy Reid for years.
The Los Angeles Rams' young coach constantly studies video of his Kansas City counterpart's offensive sets during the season, marvelling at their intricacies and ingenuity.
"Every single week, they do something where you say, 'That's pretty good,' " McVay said with an understated smile. "I'd be lying if I said we haven't stolen some of their stuff this year."
McVay gets a close-up look Monday night in one of the biggest games of the regular season and a possible Super Bowl preview.
The Chiefs (9-1) are visiting the Rams (9-1) in a game originally scheduled for Mexico City before poor field conditions at Azteca Stadium prompted the NFL to move the game to California on six days' notice.
Instead, the Coliseum will host a meeting of two prolific offences masterminded by coaches separated by 28 years of age, but shoulder-to-shoulder on the cutting edge of football.
"He's done a phenomenal job," said Reid, a Los Angeles native who lives in Orange County in the off-season. "He came up through a good system.
He's put his own flair to it. He's a smart kid. I am proud of him for the job he's done."
Two offences averaging 33 points per game have never met this late in a regular season, and the game is only the fifth meeting since 1970 between two one-loss or unbeaten teams in Week 11 or later.
Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL in yards passing with Jared Goff in second. The backfields contain Kansas City's Kareem Hunt, last season's NFL rushing champion, and Todd Gurley, the current runaway leader in the category.
Offensive fireworks seem inevitable in a matchup tailor-made for prime time, even if the late venue switch caused logistical hurdles for ESPN. Both teams expressed disappointment about the game being moved out of Mexico City, even though McVay said it was "clearly the right thing to do" given the field conditions.
Photos by The Associated Press, Getty Images
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky
Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks
Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt