It has been an unpredictable year in football, in part due to road teams enjoying unprecedented success. Road teams are winning 56.2 percent (59-46-1) of all contests, the best mark for visiting clubs through seven weeks of NFL action since 1984.
Before Week 8 of the NFL season begins, let’s kick it off with three bold predictions. We start by projecting a road underdog to come out victorious.
1. Buccaneers upset Titans
Ryan Tannehill led the Titans to victory last week over the Los Angeles Chargers, igniting an offense that had been dreadful under the now-benched Marcus Mariota. He threw for 312 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and an impressive 120.1 passer rating.
The Bucs are fresh off their bye week and ready to get their season back on track after consecutive ugly division losses. Jameis Winston threw five interceptions and lost a fumble in his most recent contest, a loss to the Carolina Panthers in London.
Head coach Bruce Arians stressed to the turnover-prone Winston to stop playing hero ball. Expect the quarterback to throw the ball away more, rather than chucking it into contested coverage.
While the Titans’ defense is one of the better units in the league, Bucs rising star Chris Godwin will continue to dominate. Godwin ranks No. 1 in the NFL in receiving yards per game and is tied for the lead in receiving TDs with six. He has been far more effective than two-time Pro Bowl teammate Mike Evans. Despite the tough matchup, Godwin will find a way to crack the 100-yard plateau for the fifth time this year.
When targeting Chris Godwin this year, Jameis Winston has a near-perfect passer rating of 148.6.
When targeting Mike Evans…
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) October 14, 2019
Although the Bucs will lean on the Winston-to-Godwin connection, they will win this game on the defensive end. The Titans are a run-first offense, led by bruising tailback Derrick Henry. Problem is, the Bucs rank first in rush defense, surrendering only 68 yards on the ground per contest. The Bucs will force Tannehill to beat them, which he will be unable to do.
Look for Tannehill to play a decent game, but come up just short against a Bucs’ defense that has had two weeks to prepare for the veteran quarterback. Bucs win, 23-21.
2. Le’Veon Bell rushes for 125 yards, TD
Le’Veon Ball has struggled to find running room in his first year with the New York Jets. His season-high in rushing came last week when he produced 70 yards on the ground against the vaunted New England Patriots’ defense.
The Jets are likely to simplify things on offense for Sam Darnold this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars after his horrid Monday Night Football performance. They will lean on the rushing attack against Jacksonville, which ranks 27th-ranked in rush defense DVOA.
The Jaguars, who yield 117 rushing yards per game, recently suffered a brutal blow on the injury front. Marcell Dareus got hurt last Sunday and will miss the next four to six weeks.
#Jaguars DT Marcell Dareus is having surgery today to repair a core muscle injury, sources say. He’s in Philly with expert Dr. William Meyers, who will perform the straightforward procedure that has a very high rate of full recovery, generally taking 4-6 weeks.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 24, 2019
Dareus has recorded 13 tackles, one for loss, and is a key component of the team’s defensive line. The two-time Pro Bowler’s absence will be felt on Sunday. Bell will take advantage by scoring a TD and rushing for roughly 125 yards, significantly above his 54.3 season average.
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster breaks out of slump with 100+ yards, 2 TDs
Pittsburgh Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster has struggled in first year as the club’s No. 1 WR. Antonio Brown’s offseason departure opened the door for Smith-Schuster to become the featured receiver, but injuries to quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (season-ending) and Mason Rudolph (missed Week 6) have robbed the 2018 Pro Bowler of thriving offensively.
Smith-Schuster’s production has fallen significantly in the Steelers’ makeshift offense. He is averaging 56.7 receiving yards per game. He averaged 89.1 in his Pro Bowl campaign and 65.5 as a rookie.
Rudolph returns for a Monday Night Football home contest against the lowly Miami Dolphins, giving a boost to Pittsburgh’s 28th-ranked passing attack. The Dolphins (0-6) have given up 16 passing TDs this season, the third-most in the league.
This is a get-right spot for Smith-Schuster. Talented cornerback Xavien Howard, who led the NFL in interceptions in 2018, has not shadowed receivers much this year and isn’t expected to on Monday. Injuries have plagued the productiveness of Howard—part of the reason he hasn’t been called upon to shadow opposing team’s top receivers. Howard has missed games due to knee ailments in three of his four seasons as a pro.
The Steelers—who are rested off their bye—sit as 14.5 point favorites. Therefore, they may lean on the running game if the matchup gets out of hand. The Steelers will be run-oriented and pound the rock to tailback James Conner early and often. But that doesn’t mean Smith-Schuster can’t also feast on the atrocious Dolphins’ secondary.
With his burning speed, it may only take a few looks in the open field for Smith-Schuster to pile up substantial yardage. Smith-Schuster will post 100 yards receiving for the first time all year and reach the end zone twice in what should be a blowout victory for the Steelers.