Here's an early look at the top 15 storylines heading into Week 10:
1. Are the Texans and Bears mirror images? Well, find out Sunday night in what looks like a fantastic game in Chicago, but on paper they’re doppelgangers. Both teams are 7-1. The Texans are 3-0 on the road, the Bears 4-0 at home. They both force turnovers and don’t commit them — the Texans are plus-8, and the Bears are an amazing plus-16 (thanks, Charles Tillman). The Bears are first in point differential at 116, the Texans second at 100. Both teams run the ball well with their well-paid backs, Arian Foster and Matt Forté, and they play defense — different styles, yes, but both very good, maybe the NFL’s two best. They’re talking Super Bowl in Houston. They’re talking Super Bowl in Chicago. By Monday morning, we’ll have a better idea where the midseason advantage lies.
2. Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said his team will address “Punch Out” Tillman this week in practice. You know that Jay Cutler is well aware of Texans DE J.J. Watt. If not, Bears ORT Gabe Carimi, Watt's former college teammate and the man he’ll battle for 50-plus plays Sunday, can give Cutler a pretty good scouting report. The two defenders have emerged as the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year at the midway point. President Obama is totally biased, here, casting his vote for Tillman; many others, including PFW, have Watt as the top NFL defender to date. This game could settle the debate, but it of course could do a lot more than that.
3. The Eagles and Cowboys meet in what you’ll no doubt hear pegged as “The Sean Payton Bowl.” As in, the loser’s owner — either Dallas’ Jerry Jones or Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie — upset with a 3-6 record, will decide to fire the incumbent and set his sights on Payton, the could-be-free-agent coach of the Saints. That might be a three-steps-ahead-of-ourselves media creation, and Jason Garrett and Andy Reid still have jobs to do, but it does paint a fantastic subtext to this elimination type of game. The winner remains in the mix at 4-5, but do we really feel tingly about either team right now? The Cowboys always seem to come up two or three plays short of victory against equal or better teams, and the Eagles are not the sum of their parts right now in any phase. Even a brilliantly devised fake goes awry these days.
4. Cowboys QB Tony Romo leads the NFL with 13 INTs. Michael Vick is tops in turnovers, with nine picks and five lost fumbles, including a 99-yard pick six in the Eagles’ brutal loss to the Saints. Based on recent results, you’d say that the Cowboys are the better team, but lest we forget Philly smoked them 34-7 in Week Seven last season, under similar circumstances. It was a banner game for Vick (21-of-28 passing, 279 yards, two TDs; 50 rush yards), even though he was sacked four times, and LeSean McCoy, who had 200 yards from scrimmage and two scores. McCoy was one of the few shining lights in Sunday’s loss at New Orleans and could be the Eagles’ best hope going forward. With ORT Todd Herremans likely out with injury and the rest of the offensive line in shambles, can the Eagles afford to expose Vick to injury? He has taken a beating this season. The Cowboys also are hoping for help from their top back, DeMarco Murray, who has been sidelined with a foot injury.
5. In his first meeting of the week with the media, Broncos head coach John Fox gave a few short answers — yes, short even by Fox’s standards — about his return on Sunday to Carolina, the place he coached (and coached very well mostly) for nine seasons. “It’s the most important game because it’s the next one,” Fox said, refusing to play a war of words with the team that fired him in 2010. But one former Panthers assistant who coached with Fox told PFW by text Monday night that “you know this one is personal for Foxy.” Fox might be flat-lined with the media, but he’s a fiery coach behind closed doors. You know he’s going to be mentally ready for this one.
6. The irony is that Ron Rivera, who like Fox is staid publicly, is in something of the same situation that Fox found himself in two years ago: in desperate need of a win, and perhaps a really hot finish. “Just from my point of view, the less we say about that, the better,” Rivera said of comparisons to Fox. Actually, Fox and the Panthers probably were, for all intents and purposes, divorced at that point. Rivera still has a job to do, and his defense has picked it up the past few games. They contained Jay Cutler well and hemmed in Robert Griffin III last Sunday, but the job of slowing down Peyton Manning is that much more difficult. The Bengals picked him off twice (once in the endzone, once from his own endzone) and held him under 300 yards passing for the first time in six games but still lost. Do the Panthers have a shot? They might, but they certainly won’t be catching the Broncos in any trap-type of game here. If they win, it will be because they outplay the visitors, plain and simple.
7. Sitting at 3-5 and clearly weighed down by a faulty defense, who knows what this Saints team can do in the final eight games? The challenge Sunday at the Superdome against the 8-0 Falcons is that much tougher, too, considering it almost certainly will take a win here for the Saints to make a run of any kind. Do you remember last year’s game there? Drew Brees broke the single-season passing yardage mark in the game — that’s what 99 percent of the country remembers. But what you can bank on the Falcons remembering is Brees and the Saints calling pass plays up 38-16 so Brees could break the record at home on a national stage (it was a Monday night), and perhaps stomp their rivals in the process. Expect some angry Falcons defenders to have a little more motivation. They might also have some more reinforcements, too; LB Sean Weatherspoon and DT Peria Jerry could be back for this game.
8. When last the Lions and Vikings met in Detroit in Week Four, these teams were in completely different places. The Vikings were playing strong defense, making plays in the passing game and were just getting Adrian Peterson into form. The Lions, meanwhile, were a mess then, struggling to contain opponents’ big pass plays and not creating enough of their own. Predictably — although few called it at the time — the Vikings sacked Matthew Stafford five times and won, 20-13. Now, these teams have swapped places, metaphorically, although the Lions remain a half game behind in the standings. But you wouldn’t know it: They have won three of four games and improved on both sides of the ball while the Vikings have faltered on offense and defense, dropping three of four, even with Peterson catching fire. More bad news comes in the fact that Percy Harvin (ankle) almost certainly won’t play; no truth to the rumors that Leslie Frazier, upon hearing the news, immediately set fire to his playbook. The Lions, despite having to play the game in Minnesota, no doubt smell blood.
9. The Bengals have lost four straight, and there’s barely a ripple in the media. The Giants, who had won four straight prior to Week Nine, lost to the Steelers and the Earth is suddenly on fire. To be fair, the Giants had shown some of their spots — shaky run defense and run game, Eli Manning and Victor Cruz not doing their thing consistently — in the previous few games prior to the loss. Betcha Eli calls his older brother this week. The Bengals' slightly improving defense picked Peyton Manning off twice at home and held him under 300 yards for the first time in six games, but he still had a good game and came out with the victory. The key will be the second half. The Giants did not score a touchdown in the second half of either of their last two games, and the Bengals have been outscored in those four straight losses in each of the second halves, by a combined score of 68-40.
10. Rex Ryan still doesn’t have power at his house after Sandy. Not a typical bye week for the Jets, but then again not a typical season, either. They’ll soldier on and face a tough test Sunday afternoon: at deceivingly good Seattle, at least at home (4-0). The Jets are 1-2 away from home, eeking out that one win at Miami in overtime and giving away one in the loss at New England. But they have only one interception in those three games, and they’ll have to face ascending QB Russell Wilson (eight TDs, two INT last four games) and a Seahawks passing game that keeps adding layers. Defensively, they could have NT Kenrick Ellis and LB Bart Scott back from injury, and that could help, too, against RB Marshawn Lynch, who quietly has put together three straight 100-yard rushing games. Like the ground game? Like physical defenses? This one is for you.
11. The Rams limped into the bye and decided to keep RB Steven Jackson on board, so they head to San Francisco in need of some cauterizing after dropping three straight, going all the way to London to be blown out in Week Eight last we saw them. The critics have started to circle around Rams QB Sam Bradford the way they had for years around 49ers QB Alex Smith until recently, but Bradford could get some help with WR Danny Amendola possibly rejoining the mix. That’s huge against a 49ers defense that has few weaknesses but has had some trouble covering good slot receivers. The Niners had a quiet bye, even while taking part in a World Series parade and feeling relief that Aldon Smith’s incident was much ado about nothing. The team seems mostly focused. The top seed in the NFC is there for the taking. Heck, when WR Randy Moss stays in town for extra work, you know things are on point. Expect a dialed-in group Sunday.
12. Bills-Patriots turned into a back-and-forth shootout, mostly dominated by New England early and late in Buffalo in Week Four. The rematch Sunday in Foxborough will not include newly acquired CB Aqib Talib, who is suspended another game and about whom the Patriots have been very mum so far. Will the Patriots’ pass defense show some improvement sans Talib? Will Devin McCourty play corner or safety? It might not matter if the Bills don’t use their weapons the right way. WR Stevie Johnson is banged up with a deep thigh bruise, and head coach Chan Gailey is taking heat for only giving C.J. Spiller six carries a week ago. If Spiller doesn’t get at least twice that on Sunday, someone has some ’splainin to do.
13. Vincent Jackson will welcome in his former Chargers teammates to his new home of Tampa in a meeting of 4-4 teams on Sunday. And while the Chargers have stumbled after a 3-1 start, the Bucs have been hot on offense in winning three of four, scoring 38, 28, 36 and 42 points in the process. Doug Martin? Yeah, he’s hot — and a huge part of it all. After taking a bit of a back seat to the passing game for a few weeks, he has been the main squeeze the past two games, with rushing touchdowns of 36, one, 45, 67, 70 and one yard and a receiving TD of 64 yards. The Chargers are coming off a game in which they erased Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles and rank in the top five against the run, but can they contain Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and Jackson, too? On top of that, Philip Rivers has to carry over his effort from the Chiefs game — save for that end-of-half INT — and match Freeman throw for throw. Expect more fireworks in Florida, and that’s not an election pun.
14. Andrew Luck might have moved ahead of Robert Griffin III in the public’s eye for Rookie of the Year, and with RG3 on bye and Luck and the Colts playing in prime time against a poor opponent (at Jacksonville on Thursday) he could take another step forward. What vaulted him there was a transcendent victory on Sunday, and an important one — really — in terms of playoff tiebreakers. Luck converted a slew of third-and-longs and set the rookie single-game passing mark with 433, one more yard than Cam Newton a year ago. “That’s why he was the first player taken in the NFL Draft,” said WR Reggie Wayne, who leads the NFL with 835 receiving yards. “He’s special.” The Jaguars are not special, losers of five straight, and they were outplayed from the first whistle against the Lions at home last week. Still, they’re a week removed from a strong effort against the Packers and have shown some spunk in recent years on national TV.
15. The Steelers have won three straight, two of them coming on the road. The Chiefs have lost five straight, not surpassing the 20-point mark in the process. The head coach (Romeo Crennel) fired the defensive coordinator (Crennel) and replaced him with linebackers coach Gary Gibbs. They also cut one of their starting corners, Stanford Routt, this week and found out that DE Glenn Dorsey could be out for a while. So who ya got on Monday in Pittsburgh? Well, it’s not all roses for the Steelers, who don’t expect to have WR Antonio Brown for the game and still won’t have Troy Polamalu back, but they so seldom slip up in these types of situations. A week after calling for a mindless fake field goal and living to tell the tale, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin can be expected to come out Sunday with a hammer. Guess who could be the nail.