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Hank GargiuloSeth Walder 23d

Identifying the best, most important games of NFL Week 9

NFL, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys

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 9.


1. Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)

Matchup quality: 82 out of 100
FPI win projection: Cowboys, 59 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Cowboys, 20 percent; Chiefs, 3 percent

If Ezekiel Elliott is indeed suspended by the time Sunday rolls around, that will certainly hurt the Cowboys. And it's worth noting that FPI does not adjust for suspensions or injuries to non-quarterbacks, so Dallas may be slightly overrated here. But losing Elliott might not hurt the Cowboys as much as most might think. Dallas will still have, by far, its most valuable offensive player available: Dak Prescott.

Prescott is second in Total QBR this year, after being third a season ago. So he's an elite quarterback, and that matters a heck of a lot more than an elite running back. Don't believe me? Just compare the salaries of the best quarterbacks and best running backs.


2. Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX)

Matchup quality: 63 out of 100
FPI win projection: Panthers, 57 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Panthers, 31 percent; Falcons, 28 percent

Maybe Steve Sarkisian ought to consider handing the ball off to Devonta Freeman a little more. It's not that Freeman's workload has decreased -- he has 103 carries through seven games this season compared with 105 last year -- but rather that he's just been so effective that he likely warrants more carries.

The Falcons currently average .01 expected points added per play on running plays, fifth best in the league. But on plays where Freeman carries the ball, they average .10 EPA/P, which would be second best in the league compared with all rushers.


3. Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS)

Matchup quality: 61 out of 100
FPI win projection: Eagles, 73 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Broncos, 16 percent; Eagles, 6 percent

By the time Sunday rolls around, both of these teams could be using a new player on offense. For the Eagles, they'll get their first opportunity to showcase new running back Jay Ajayi, whom they acquired from Miami. It will be interesting to see if Ajayi -- who has a similar running style to LeGarrette Blount -- changes Philadelphia's ground attack at all. The Eagles rank 14th in EPA/P on rushing plays so far this season.

Meanwhile, the Broncos may make a switch at quarterback. Trevor Siemian has played poorly enough that he now ranks 29th in Total QBR this season, and the three quarterbacks below him -- DeShone Kizer, Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer -- have all been benched at some point.


4. Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX)

Matchup quality: 60 out of 100
FPI win projection: Seahawks, 76 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Redskins, 11 percent; Seahawks, 10 percent

For the first time since this season, a team not named the Patriots or Chiefs is FPI's top team, and it's the Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks are one of only two teams to rank in the top 10 in FPI for all three phases of the game (8th in offense, 4th in defense and 10th in special teams) and have a favorable schedule going forward -- they are a 65 percent favorite in all but two of their remaining games (slight underdogs at Jacksonville and at Dallas).

Washington is on the other end of the spectrum, clinging to its playoff life. The Redskins are largely out of contention for the NFC East (even a win here would result in less than a 1 percent chance they win their division), but they are still on the periphery of the wild-card race. A surprising win would get them to a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs, but falling to 3-5 would drop them to 4 percent.


5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX)

Matchup quality: 60 out of 100
FPI win projection: Saints, 68 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Saints, 18 percent; Buccaneers, 8 percent

After their 0-2 start, FPI gave the Saints just a 5 percent chance of making the playoffs, third worst in the NFC. Since then, they've reeled off five consecutive wins and have climbed all the way up to an 80 percent chance at making the postseason, fourth best in the NFC. They've surprisingly done it with a defensive turnaround. After giving up 777 yards and a 94.8 Total QBR over their first two games, they've only allowed 794 yards and a 24.0 QBR over their last five.

This may lead to another rough week for Jameis Winston. He is coming off a season-low 7.0 Total QBR in Week 8 and has had a QBR lower than 30 in three of the last four games. He also has been battling an injury to his throwing shoulder.

An unexpected Buccaneer win would drop New Orleans from a 59 percent majority favorite to win the NFC South to a 45 percent favorite. But a Saints win would give them a 66 percent chance at the division.


Leverage game of the week: Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS)

Matchup quality: 46 out of 100
FPI win projection: Titans, 59 percent
FPI playoff leverage: Ravens, 32 percent; Titans, 29 percent

The status of Joe Flacco won't move the needle too much in terms of FPI projection. Should Flacco not be cleared from the concussion protocol and Ryan Mallett has to start, the Titans would get a small bump to 61 percent favorites. This has less to do with how Mallett is viewed and more to do with how poorly Flacco has played recently. Flacco's 30.9 Total QBR is fifth worst among the 32 qualified quarterbacks this season.

Regardless of who is under center for Baltimore, both teams will be fighting to stay above water in the AFC's playoff picture.

The Titans are still in the picture for the AFC South, and a win would lift them to a 29 percent chance at the division behind Jacksonville and a 55 percent chance to make the playoffs overall. A loss drops those numbers to 16 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

Baltimore is mostly playing for a wild-card spot as even a win would only get the Ravens up to a 7 percent chance at the AFC North. Their overall playoff odds would jump to 61 percent with a win (currently, FPI gives them a 42 percent chance) and drop them to 29 percent with a loss. Their 32 percentage-point difference in odds between winning and losing is the most of any team this week.

For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index. 

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