Here are the crucial story lines to keep track of for Week Nine as we reach the midpoint of the season:
1. Toronto was nice and all for the Bills, who earned a nine-sack shutout of the Redskins (their first since 2006 and the first ever handed to Mike Shanahan as a coach or coordinator) and took over first place in the AFC East. But the 5-2 Bills likely are excited about the idea of hosting the 4-3 Jets in Buffalo in a game with serious postseason considerations. If you're looking for a great matchup in this one, look no further than right over the ball. Jets C Nick Mangold has been banged up, but the bye should leave him healthy to battle with impressive Bills rookie Marcel Dareus, who switched from end to tackle with the loss of Kyle Williams and completely dominated the middle of the Redskins' line. The Bills have something special going into this game and have to be commended for their defensive performance Sunday, even if it was against the ineffectual Redskins.
2. The Jets have had extra time to rethink their idea of letting Mark Sanchez air it out, and it's far more likely that as the weather gets colder — the early forecast, though, is only for low 50s — that the Jets will run the ball more often. They had more success doing just that in the win over the Chargers before the bye, and having a healthy Mangold will lead things that way even further. But the health also is improving on defense, too, with LB David Harris and NT Kenrick Ellis both getting chances to heal their ankles. They'll be chasing the Bills' all-important duo of RB Fred Jackson, who is second in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is sixth in the league in passer rating.
3. Well, doesn't the Steelers' game against the Ravens promise to be cast in a bit of a different light now than, say, after Week One? You remember: The Ravens pounded them 35-7 as Joe Flacco threw three TD passes and the defense forced a shocking seven turnovers. Well, here is what has happened since then: The Steelers have gone 6-1 and the Ravens have looked quite beatable the past two weeks. Flacco has only five TDs over the past six games (one TD in the past four) and the defense has forced only nine turnovers since then. In Sunday's win over the Cardinals, Anquan Boldin bailed them out by having a huge game receiving (7-145-0) and drawing two key pass-interference calls that set up a score. But if the Steelers' corners, led by Ike Taylor, manhandled the Patriots' receivers, what are they going to do to the Ravens' wideouts?
4. The Ravens' offensive line has a big challenge if the Steelers rush them like they did the Patriots. That's a big "if" if OLB LaMarr Woodley's MRI (hamstring) comes back saying anything other than it's not torn. The Steelers can survive without James Harrison, who might still be out, and Jason Worilds and others, but they can't have Woodley be out, too. One clever thing the Ravens did in the opening-week victory was spread those Steelers linebackers out with their athletic tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Well, those two gentlemen have not been featured prominently in the passing game in the three games since the bye, combining for only 155 yards in those contests. In the opener alone, they tallied 104. But Dickson and Pitta each caught six passes Sunday and are sure to be part of the plan in Pittsburgh. Flacco will need all the help he can get.
5. It probably shouldn't be shocking that a few days after cutting CB Leigh Bodden and placing Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve that the Patriots would struggle to defend the Steelers' passing game. But it was not only the corners struggling; the linebackers had no answers for Steelers TE Heath Miller, and the defensive line — other than a few plays from Vince Wilfork and Andre Carter — didn't do its job either. It will be a tall order, then, for this harried New England defense to handle Eli Manning and the Giants, the second reminder of their last-minute Super Bowl loss a few years back after Plaxico Burress and the Jets came to town previously. As has been Bill Belichick's hallmark since taking the Patriots' job, the team has an impeccable record for following up losses with wins and fixing problems when they arise. But how will he do it with this defense that clearly lacks the talent to be a top-tier group? The Patriots certainly can run and gun with anyone, but asking even Tom Brady to ring up 35 points every week (after only totaling 37 the past two games) might be a bit much.
6. Congrats, Giants, on your three-point home victory over the winless, directionless Dolphins. But now comes a cold dose of reality: The next six games are evil, starting with the trip to Foxborough. Tom Coughlin won't let anyone — not the media, not the players or coaches — talk about anything past this week. And he's as good a game-planning coach as there is in the league. But he must find a way to solve this team's strange bent for playing down to inferior competition. The Giants do tend to rise up against better foes, but they can't count on that happening following a game in which their tackling was sloppy, the running game was nonexistent and too many dropped passes, penalties and negative plays accumulated the closer they got to the endzone. As Giants announcer Bob Papa said Monday on NFL Network, "there are areas of concern for this football team, and it really starts at the point of attack, at the line of scrimmage." He's right: Allowing Reggie Bush to run for 100-plus yards, which is Halley's Comet rare, and Matt Moore to dance around and make hay with his legs, not to mention the suspect run blocking on the other side of the ball, it makes you think that this is not the same Giants type of team we have come to know in the past.
7. How nice is life in Green Bay? They are 7-0, coming out of the bye as one of two teams in the NFL with fewer than two losses. They were given six well-earned days off by head coach Mike McCarthy, and injured players such as Greg Jennings, Sam Shields and perhaps even Frank Zombo might be cleared to resume normal activities. It's good to be the kings, but things do get tougher. Following Sunday's game against the Chargers — and they're still a tough team — the Packers will play three games in an 11-day span against three competitive teams with good quarterbacks. The Chargers have one, too, in Philip Rivers. What exactly has plagued him in throwing 11 interceptions and losing five fumbles is difficult to assess. The Chargers say he's healthy. The pass catchers are all back in the fold. But the Packers' pass defense has been one of its few weaknesses this season, as even rookie QBs Cam Newton and Christian Ponder have had relative success ... that is, when they were not throwing the ball to the ageless CB Charles Woodson.
8. The Chargers. That's about all you can say right now. They appear to be in the kind of funk the Eagles were in from Weeks Two through Five. They have, as a franchise, pulled off some upsets in the past like the one they are facing, including an 8-5 team beating the 13-0 Colts back in 2005. But that team was trending upwards while this one most certainly has not played up to its potential. We talked about Rivers' turnovers above, and they most certainly were a major plotline on Monday. But the defense also has not had enough dominant moments like the second- and third-quarter performance they put on against the Chiefs. They will need that level of execution for four quarters, or most of four quarters, if they want to stop the multi-faceted attack of the Packers. Allowing the Chiefs to get back in this division race after their 0-3 start falls heavily on them now.
9. Of all the remarkable things Andy Dalton and the Bengals have done this season, winning in Seattle might rank somewhere in the middle: impressive but hardly earth-shattering. But the defense deserves just as much of the mention for the Bengals' 5-2 start. They rank in the top-five in yards allowed, rushing yards, first downs and points allowed per game, although some might argue they haven't faced the west wing of Canton as far as quarterbacks are concerned (Kyle Orton, Curtis Painter, Blaine Gabbert and Sunday's dynamic duo — Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson — included). On Sunday in Nashville, they get a pro's pro in Matt Hasselbeck, whose Titans got back on track with a much-needed win over Painter and the winless Colts. The Titans' 4-3 mark does feel a bit like fool's gold at this point, and they still have the whole Chris Johnson (averaging 2.8 yards per carry and relegated to part-time duty) situation to deal with. But we still aren't sure about the Bengals, either.
10. Are the Texans dirty? That's what opponents from the past two games, the Titans and Jaguars, have asserted. The biggest question might be: Are they great? Good makes sense, and the run game has caught up to the level of the defense now as the team sits at 5-3 and 3-0 in the division (for the first time). But they suffered an under-the-radar loss with the season-ending injury to LB Darryl Sharpton, who had been a key player on defense. The Browns also come into their home game against the Texans in rough shape with RB Montario Hardesty (torn calf muscle) out a few games and Peyton Hillis (hamstring) not in great shape. That means Chris Ogbonnaya, who emerged from the practice squad only two weeks ago, could be trying to match the runs of Houston's Arian Foster. Of course, we also could see some role playing from Josh Cribbs, who can fill in just about anywhere and almost certainly will take a few handoffs if Hillis can't go.
11. Sunday's loss to the Rams underlined what had been a growing concern for the Saints for weeks: The offensive line is not a good unit right now. They just changed centers and the rotating personnel at tackle really has disrupted the offensive rhythm, which kept the Saints from scoring an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter against a previously winless team. The Buccaneers certainly have shaken off their jetlag and will come into this game against the Saints looking to pressure that O-line, and they have the young DL talent to do just that. It was only three weeks ago in Tampa, after all, that the Bucs' "D" held the Saints to under 30 points, shut down the run game (70 yards) and picked off Drew Brees three times. Josh Freeman also had his best game of the season against the Saints, and he spent the bye week looking at his 10 interceptions and how better to prevent them. But the Saints forced none of those in the Week Six contest and will have to make more big plays on defense to return to that 2009 form.
12. Will Carson Palmer's first start with the Raiders also signal the end of Tim Tebow as the Broncos' starter? Head coach John Fox wouldn't say after the 45-10 loss to the Lions who his starting quarterback would be, but he did say Monday he would stick with Tebow another week. Still, you have to think that he needs to play far better in this game, against a bottom-third defense, to keep his job. The Raiders rank about in the same lowly neighborhood defensively as the Dolphins, and Tebow only mustered a few good drives late against them. But for the Raiders, the hope is that offensively they'll be far better now that Palmer had a week during the bye to get acclimated to his new teammates, many of whom gave up some precious time off to get their new QB ready. It also will be worth watching this week to see if the Raiders add a receiver — probably not Terrell Owens, but perhaps another former Palmer teammate, T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
13. The Eagles staked their claim as being the NFL's most dangerous 3-4 team with Sunday night's thrashing of the Cowboys, now owning the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing offense, led by LeSean McCoy (who has a TD in every game), both in yards and yards per carry after mowing through the previously top-ranked Dallas run "D." The Bears have a pretty decent two-way back of their own in Matt Forté, and you could have a pretty decent conversation — maybe throwing Fred Jackson and Adrian Peterson into the mix, too — about which back means more to their team. The Bears have done a good job against Michael Vick in their past several meetings, but there is one potential nightmare matchup they have to worry about. Either Lance Louis or Gabe Carimi at right tackle will have to deal with Eagles DLE Jason Babin, who has nine sacks and has been on a tear since rejoining the team.
14. The Vikings and Panthers head into their bye weeks feeling good about their rookie quarterbacks, Ponder and Newton, but less so about the rest of their teams. The Panthers remain a turnover-, penalty- and mistake-prone team, and they were done in late by a missed FG attempt that would have sent the game to overtime. The Vikings, meanwhile, survived on sacks and turnovers defensively and have an absolute nightmare in their secondary right now.
15. Also on bye are the Lions, coming off their big win in Denver, and the Jaguars, who got their big victory the week before and came up short against the Texans. Bet you could win a few bar bets with this one, though: The Jags' defense, led by coordinator Mel Tucker, actually ranks ahead of the Lions in yards allowed (seventh to 12th) and first downs allowed (third to 11th). The Jaguars are now where the Lions were right when Matthew Stafford was a rookie: a work in progress with some upside ... for next season and beyond.