A litmus test for the NFL’s rating dilemma should come on Sunday Night Football, when two iconic franchises and division rivals battle for first place in the AFC West, with 6-2 Denver traveling to the Bay Area to battle 6-2 Oakland.
If that game doesn’t get great ratings, the NFL clearly suffers from a serious problem. League partisans point to competition from presidential debates and the World Series as an explanation for the Nielsen slide. But neither baseball nor hardball politics competes with Broncos-Raiders. The NFL cites online viewing and technological change to explain away their ratings skid. But baseball plays in the same headwinds yet enjoyed monster ratings for the World Series. The elephant in the room remains the 49ers quarterback kneeling on the rug. None, at least within the league, dare say Kaepernick insulting Americans results in Americans clicking off.
Lets take a closer look at that matchup and the rest of Sunday’s action…
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) at Baltimore Ravens (3-4)
Both teams come back after a bye week, so each returns healthier, and there is a good chance the Steelers get QB Ben Roethlisberger back from a knee injury.
The Ravens get five starters back who missed their last game.
This game is hard to call because it’s tough to know what to expect from “Big Ben” coming off knee surgery.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (5-2)
The Chiefs play without starting quarterback Alex Smith due to an ear injury, but it’s not a big drop off to backup Nick Foles
As for the Jaguars, they fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson last week due to the struggles of QB Blake Bortles. QB coach Nate Hackett takes over. Bortles now performs under his third offensive coordinator.
This game favors the Chiefs.
Dallas Cowboys (6-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-8)
All signs point to a win for the red-hot Cowboys, but you never know.
The Browns get speedy receiver Corey Coleman back from a hand injury. He was their 2016 first-round pick. They also added talented linebacker Jamie Collins in a trade with New England. He should help their pass rush.
And the Cowboys compete without half their starting secondary due to injuries.
It’s not out of the realm that the Browns shock the football world.
New York Jets (3-5) at Miami Dolphins (3-4)
Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi goes for a NFL record third straight 200-yard rushing game.
This will be no easy task against the Jets’ top-ranked run defense.
The Dolphins might be better off trying to win through the air. The Jets have the league’s worst pass defense.
This game could go either way.
Detroit Lions (4-4) at Minnesota Vikings (5-2)
After a 5-0 start, the wheels have come off the Vikings with two straight losses and this week’s resignation of offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
In this game, they play minus three starting offensive linemen.
Don’t be shocked if the Lions, behind red-hot QB Matt Stafford, pull an upset.
Carolina Panthers (2-5) at Los Angeles Rams (3-4)
The Panthers defense struggles, so facing the Rams, who average just 17 points a game, could provide a cure to what ails them.
This is a big game for Rams QB Case Keenum. If Los Angeles loses, they likely turn to Jared Goff, their 2016 first-round pick.
Facing the NFL’s worst secondary could help Keenum save his job.
This game is too close to call.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-3) at New York Giants (4-3)
The Eagles play without two offensive line starters facing a talented Giants defensive line.
The Giants come off a bye- week, and it allowed their ailing cornerbacks to get healthy.
When you combine a good defensive line with solid corners, positive results often follow.
The Giants should win this game.
New Orleans Saints (3-4) at San Francisco 49ers (1-6)
Maybe penalties are overrated.
The 49ers are the NFL’s least penalized team, and they haven’t won a game since Week One.
The Saints are coming off a huge win over Seattle, and get two key defensive players back from injury in CB Delvin Breaux and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
The Saints should win this game, easily.
Indianapolis Colts (3-5) at Green Bay Packers (4-3)
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers remained in a bit of slump earlier this season. It’s over. He threw seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the last two games.
And now he faces a team beat up in the secondary.
But injuries also ravage the Green Bay secondary, especially at cornerback.
This game could go either way.
Tennessee Titans (4-4) at San Diego Chargers (3-5)
Philip Rivers continues to lose weapons. This week he takes the field without standout rookie tight end Hunter Henry.
But no matter how many receiving threats get sidelined, he still manages to move the ball.
“It doesn’t seem to matter who is around him,” said Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “He consistently moves the ball up and down the field and scores points.”
Expect him to do the same this week and lead San Diego to a home win.
Denver Broncos (6-2) at Oakland Raiders (6-2)
Another example of why penalties are perhaps a little overrated. The Raiders committed in an NFL record 23 penalties last week, and still beat Tampa Bay.
Raiders QB Derek Carr enjoys his best season. But he hasn’t faced a defense anything like Denver’s.
The Broncos should win this game.