What are the five must-watch NFL games this week? ESPN’s matchup quality metric, which utilizes ESPN’s Football Power Index to rank games on a 1-100 scale based on the quality of teams and projected closeness of the final score, tells us the top games of Week 5.
1. New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
Matchup quality: 82 out of 100
FPI win projection: Patriots, 58 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Buccaneers 14 percent, Patriots 9 percent
Week 5’s opening contest is also FPI’s pick as the game of the week, as the Patriots head south to take on the Buccaneers. The Patriots might have dropped to No. 7 in the most recent NFL Power Rankings, but FPI isn’t quite ready to give up on the defending champs yet. Tom Brady is still playing at an extremely high level, ranking No. 2 in the league with a 75.6 Total QBR, and the Patriots’ offensive FPI value is seen as over a field goal better than any other offense in the league, so all hope should not be lost in New England.
The Buccaneers will try to keep pace with the Falcons and Panthers, who are both 3-1, having played one more game than Tampa. A win for the home team would raise Tampa’s postseason chances to nearly 1-in-3, while a loss would drop the Bucs to less than 1-in-5.
If the Buccaneers can keep the Patriots’ offense in check perhaps their special teams can make a difference, as Tampa has the most efficient unit of any team so far this season.
2. Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Matchup quality: 81 out of 100
FPI win projection: Chiefs, 61 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Texans 23 percent, Chiefs 3 percent
It will be the leader in Total QBR versus the leader in passer rating taking center stage on Sunday Night Football. Surprising rookie Deshaun Watson paces all quarterbacks so far with a 79.1 Total QBR, while Alex Smith touts a 124.2 passer rating to lead the way in that category. So who really holds the edge in QB play? Let’s just say passer rating is missing a few things when evaluating Smith, most notably the fact he has been sacked 16 times in four games, second most in the league. That is part of the reason why Smith ranks 14th in Total QBR.
This isn’t to say the entirety of the Chiefs’ offense is worse than the Texans’ — it’s not. The Chiefs have been the more efficient unit (they rank No. 2, compared to the Texans at No. 19) and are projected to be stronger going forward (Chiefs rank No. 3 in offensive FPI, Texans rank No. 23). It just points to the Texans being much more reliant on Watson.
There will be some defense played, too. J.J. Watt might not have a sack yet this season, but that hasn’t slowed down the Texans’ defense — FPI’s second strongest through four weeks, just ahead of their opponents who rank fifth. So what will win the day: a dynamic individual performer at quarterback, or a more team-focused approach? Either way, FPI believes this will be a game to watch.
3. Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
Matchup quality: 77 out of 100
FPI win projection: Cowboys, 54 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Cowboys 19 percent, Packers 18 percent
A rematch from the memorable NFC divisional round last season — and a matchup of two of FPI’s top five teams in the NFC — is the highlight of the Sunday afternoon slate. The Packers currently are FPI’s pick to end up with the top seed in the conference, but only narrowly. Green Bay is projected to win the top seed 17 percent of the time, just ahead of the Falcons at 16 percent. Dallas, however, is in a slightly less enviable position, currently projected to make the playoffs only 30 percent of the time.
While the leverage for both teams to make the playoffs is similar — 19 percent for Dallas and 18 percent for Green Bay — the Cowboys’ situation is more desperate. A Dallas loss nearly halves its probability to reach the postseason, from 39 percent down to 20 percent, while the Packers would still be 60 percent to make the playoffs with a loss.
FPI has the game as a near coin flip, with the home Cowboys holding a slight 54 percent edge, so maybe we see 50-plus-yard field goals in the last 93 seconds again.
4. Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Matchup quality: 63 out of 100
FPI win projection: Lions, 59 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Panthers 24 percent, Lions 24 percent
Is Cam Newton back to his old self, or did he just look like it because he was playing the Patriots’ defense? The Panthers’ quarterback posted a Total QBR of 81.1 even after an adjustment for New England’s defense, but has just a 43.4 Total QBR (25th best in the NFL) on the season.
Surprisingly, the Lions have had the second-most efficient defense this season, and FPI expects the unit to be above average going forward, so this might be a stiffer test for Newton than we might have anticipated heading into the year. Detroit’s pass defense ranks fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
This contest is very evenly matched, with the Lions holding a slight edge almost solely because of home-field advantage. The Lions (31 percent) and Panthers (29 percent) are both the second-most likely teams to win their respective divisions.
5. Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
Matchup quality: 62 out of 100
FPI win projection: Seahawks, 60 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Rams 28 percent, Seahawks 25 percent
For Jared Goff and coach Sean McVay, the real test begins now.
The neophyte duo has been impressive early in the season, but a slew of rough defenses await, starting with Seattle, which has allowed the fifth-lowest raw QBR to opposing quarterbacks this season.
Goff has been able to hold onto the ball longer than most so far this season, averaging 2.71 seconds before his pass attempts, fifth best in the league. While that might make him susceptible to problems against some defenses, so far the Seahawks are only pressuring the quarterback on 21.9 percent of plays (fourth worst in the NFL) and allowing opposing QBs 2.58 seconds before passing (eighth longest in the NFL).
In fact, if there’s a line of scrimmage mismatch in this game, it’s the Rams’ defense against Seattle’s offense. Los Angeles is generating pressure on 33.3 percent of opponents’ dropbacks, second best in the league, while Seattle has allowed pressure on 31.5 percent of its dropbacks, fourth most in the league. Russell Wilson might want to start scrambling now.
High-leverage game of the week: Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
Matchup quality: 48 out of 100
FPI win projection: Raiders, 73 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Ravens 22 percent, Raiders 20 percent
Manuel, a former first-round bust, has a career Total QBR of 33.9. For context, that would be the 27th-best Total QBR among qualifying quarterbacks so far this season, and dead last among qualifying quarterbacks in 2016. Not ideal for a game where Oakland has so much at stake. Because both teams are now long shots for their respective divisions, they could end up direct competitors for a wild-card spot.
Fortunately for Oakland, FPI thinks the rest of the team is good enough that the Raiders are still solid favorites hosting Baltimore coming to the West Coast.
One note on Joe Flacco: While he has a reputation for having success by simply chucking it deep, he has barely attempted that strategy this season and when he has, it hasn’t worked. Flacco has attempted only seven pass attempts of 20 air yards or more this season, and has the worst raw QBR on such throws in the league.
For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index.