FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2018, file photo, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, in Green Bay, Wis. To get ready for Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Packers turned to rookie defensive lineman James Looney. The seventh-round pick failed to make the roster and has been toiling on the practice squad. But he's been tasked with helping the Packers prepare for Donald, the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year who already has eight sacks this season and will get a shot at Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke, File)

Biggest matchups heading into NFL Week 9

Big-time trades, undefeated streaks, the Brady-Rodgers quarterback duel and still no Le’Veon Bell all categorize Week 9 of the National Football League. The trade deadline has passed, and teams enter the back half of their seasons with critical games lying ahead. Here are four of the top matchups around the league this week:

Los Angeles Rams (8-0) at New Orleans Saints (6-1)

Many will anxiously await Sunday’s 4:25 p.m. kickoff to see if it’ll be the week Jared Goff and the undefeated Los Angeles Rams finally fall.

Not if defensive end Aaron Donald has anything to do with it.

Last season’s Defensive Player of the Year has already totaled 10 sacks through eight games, despite recording zero in the first three games. He also has 19 tackles and a forced fumble on the year. Donald has been relatively unblockable this season, and his ability to beat every man to the quarterback has been one of the keys to the Rams’ unmatched success.

And the Rams added another elite pass rusher to their roster of defensive weapons.  They acquired former Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler, who will bring more disruption coming off the edge.  Fowler has 14 sacks in his two years in the NFL, including two this year.

The Rams pass rush has been suffocating through the first half of the season, but they haven’t had to face quarterback Drew Brees.

The New Orleans Saints quarterbacks is already almost at 2,000 passing yards for the season (1,990) and enters the game with 14 touchdowns.

He’s picked apart every opposing defense he has seen this season, completing at least 70% of his passes in six of the Saints’ seven games this season. He ‘ll have to get the ball out quick on Saturday, but when he does, he has weapons down the field in guys like Michael Thomas who will make plays.

The Saints won’t have to rely on Brees alone as they have two explosive running backs in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara has 408 yards and seven touchdowns this season, and Ingram has tallied 147 yards and two TDs since returning Week 5.


Green Bay Packers (3-3-1) at New England Patriots (6-2)

The primary storyline heading into this matchup is the duel between perhaps the two best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers will square off against Patriots’ Tom Brady for just the second time in their careers for Week 9 Sunday Night Football.

Rodgers and co. missed out on a chance to stage a comeback against the Rams last week, while Brady’s Patriots won their fifth-straight game after beating the Bills in Buffalo, and are undefeated at Gillette Stadium.  Rodgers got the best of Brady when the two met in 2014, leading the Packers to a 26-21 win in Green Bay.

The two quarterbacks have combined for five NFL Most Valuable Player Awards through their careers. And their 2018 stats aren’t far off from each other. Brady has thrown for 2,200 yards this season with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while Rodgers has 2,283 passing yards with 13 touchdowns and just one interception.

With two dangerous quarterbacks at the helm of these offenses, Sunday’s matchup could trend down to defense. Green Bay ranks fifth in the league against the pass, only allowing 221.7 yards per game, while New England’s defense ranks 2th (277.3). One defensive stop, one forced turnover, one mistake could easily decide the game.

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3-1) at Baltimore Ravens (4-4)

All eyes will presumably be on the aforementioned games, and for good reason. But a division matchup between the Steelers and the Ravens will surely be a thriller.

The Steelers, still Le’Veon Bell-less, have won three straight behind Ben Roethlisberger’s 879 yards in that span and running back James Conner’s 367 rushing yards.

Conner, who is the league’s third-leading rusher, was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week after his 146-yard, two touchdown performance against Cleveland last week.

Baltimore topped Pittsburgh 26-14 on the road when the teams met earlier this season , but the Steelers have won three of their last four against the Ravens.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is having a relatively mediocre season, statistically. But the story will be about how this elite Ravens defense will fare against Big Ben, Antonio Brown and the rest of the Steelers’ playmakers on offense.

Though Brown ranks 22nd in the league in receiving, he’s a known matchup nightmare, and the Ravens cannot afford to let Sunday’s game turn into a shootout given Pittsburgh’s balance on offense.

Houston Texans (5-3) at Denver Broncos (3-5)

This will be a critical game for both teams.

The Broncos lead the all-time series against the Texans 4-2, but only have two more wins than the 1-6 Raiders, who are last in the AFC West. And Denver has struggled mightily this season due to poor run defense and even poorer pass protection from their offensive line.

The Texans, on the other hand, lead the AFC South and have won their last five contests after starting the season 0-3. Defensive end J.J. Watt and the rest of the Texans defense, combined with stellar play from quarterback Deshaun Watson have contributed to much of the success.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) and quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) celebrate their win over Miami Dolphins in an NFL football game, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Watson has 2,176 yards this season with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

But most of the attention will be on wideout Demaryius Thomas, who the Broncos traded to the Texans prior to Tuesday’s trade deadline, to the chagrin of Von Miller and other members of the team.

The Texans needed another receiver after losing Will Fuller for the season with an ACL injury. And Thomas is expected to take on Fuller’s No. 2 role behind DeAndre Hopkins.

Houston Texans wide receiver Demaryius Thomas speaks to the media during a news conference at NRG Stadium in Houston, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Demaryius Thomas’ trade from the Denver Broncos to the Houston Texans wasn’t so much a good-bye as a see-you-later. As in Sunday, when the Texans (5-3) visit the Broncos (3-5). (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

It’ll likely be an emotional game for the veteran receiver facing his former team less than a week after being traded.

Week 9 of the NFL begins with a Thursday Night Football matchup between the Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers.

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