Now this is more like it. The past two weeks have not been great on paper, rendering "The EEE" a bit lean on riveting storylines coming in. Thankfully, the action — and the off-field fodder — has been off the charts recently. But Week 10's games have a good, competitive feel about it, with playoff ramifications galore. Here's an early look at the best talking points heading into this week's games:
1. Suddenly, we have a real battle here, and a possible playoff preview with the Carolina Panthers (who would be the 6-seed if the playoff standing held) traveling to face the San Francisco 49ers (the would-be 5-seed but still very much in the NFC West title hunt). Two hot teams here: The Niners have won five straight, the Panthers four. And feel free to dismiss the weak-opponent talk, as the Panthers have won those four by a combined 130-48 — one of three teams in the past five seasons to win four straight by 15 or more points. Likewise, the 49ers have outscored their opponents 174-61 over their five straight wins. What’s amazing, too, is that both teams have yet to fully max out. The Niners can get better offensively and on special teams, and they soon could have Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree back. And the Panthers are similar in that as good as Cam Newton has been of late, he still misses some plays; the team also is just getting Jonathan Stewart back. This should be a fun test of rising NFC powers.
2. Speaking of rising, the hopes of the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears — meeting Sunday at Soldier Field — just got brighter with the Aaron Rodgers injury news. The NFC North is a three-headed race, with the Lions, Bears and Packers all at 5-3 overall and 2-1 in the division. The Bears looked almost flawless offensively with Marc Trestman calling the plays, Matt Forte running in top form and Josh McCown pulling the trigger on some shockingly good throws. Now they get to face the bye-week-rested Lions, who have averaged nearly 29 points the past three games since the Green Bay debacle. You’d have to think that this one will feature more points, with Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall mismatches against whatever DB they face.
3. Sunday night, the Dallas Cowboys head to face the New Orleans Saints in a matchup of division leaders, each holding a one-game edge. Both teams are coming off shaky performances, and it was something of a miracle for the Cowboys to win on the final drive, considering they threw the ball 54 times against the Minnesota Vikings, and ran it only nine times, the highest pass-run ratio in a victory in NFL history. The Saints fell at the New York Jets, watching their offensive line crumble against such a strong front. Good news for Dallas: It appears that DeMarcus Ware, out three games with a thigh injury, will return. You can bet that after losing to his brother in Week 9, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will want to show the Cowboys they made a mistake by letting him go. Sean Payton has a history with the Cowboys, too. These teams have had some good battles in recent years.
4. This will be the first Denver Broncos game following the heart surgery of head coach John Fox as they return to face the San Diego Chargers on the road. Jack Del Rio, Peyton Manning and Co. have had the bye week to prepare for the adjustment, and let’s not knock them down too much — we’re talking about the team with the most points and passing yards through eight games in NFL history. But don’t discount these Chargers, even after last week’s overtime loss to the Washington Redskins. They are still in the thick of the AFC playoff picture at 4-4, Philip Rivers has been hot and Mike McCoy knows this Broncos squad. McCoy, the Chargers’ first-year head coach, served the previous four seasons with the Broncos, three of them under Fox. But the emotional edge could lie on the side of the Broncos. “We believe we have a good football team,” says Del Rio. “We’re on a mission. We’re on a mission to carry on and continue what Coach Fox has going with this football team. We all want to make him proud.”
5. The Green Bay Packers can take a lesson from the visiting Philadelphia Eagles on how to settle a team facing a quarterback change. Granted, they’re for different reasons and felt to different levels, but the Eagles have remained in their division race at 4-5 despite using all three of their quarterbacks extensively — including getting a seven-TD performance last week from one-time backup Nick Foles. Meanwhile, the Packers must find a way to move on with Rodgers sidelined and Seneca Wallace taking the reins. One way they can do so is behind Eddie Lacy (who leads the NFL in rushing yards the past five games) and James Starks, an angry-running duo who mowed through the Bears and could find ground to chew up against an Eagles team that allowed 210 rushing yards to the Oakland Raiders last week.
6. The offensively challenged Baltimore Ravens host the identity-void Cincinnati Bengals in a game that could reveal a lot about the AFC North. With four losses in five games by a combined 14 points, the Ravens have put themselves on the verge of going from a Super Bowl to utter obscurity this season. But the Bengals, reeling from their Pyrrhic loss to the Miami Dolphins, suffering the brutal Geno Atkins injury in the process, are no lock to seize the division without some form of solidarity starting with this game. Can Andy Dalton avoid those brutal outings? Can the defense step up elsewhere? This is the game to do it: against a divisional opponent that has shown a penchant for fading late. A road victory would set the tone for the Bengals’ second half, but the Ravens also know they must play with desperation from here on out to even sniff the postseason.
7. It’s six losses and counting for the Houston Texans, who travel to face the Arizona Cardinals this week, but it’s not for naught. The two close losses to AFC powers Kansas City and Indianapolis at least show they are competitive now, following the blowout losses to the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers. Case Keenum has rallied the offense, and they can feed off the emotion of losing head coach Gary Kubiak, who is expected to miss this game in light of his health concerns. This is Keenum’s opportunity to seal up the job heading into next season, while trying to save the season. The Cardinals are 4-5 and present a great defensively challenge this week. They’re still back in the NFC West race and have a chance to at least make it interesting if they can get going offensively. If — big if.
8. There are signs that the Washington Redskins are climbing out of their self-dug hole, and Robert Griffin III is coming off his best game of the season heading into their star vs. star matchup on Thursday night against Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings. Things are not merry up north as the Vikings search for answers at quarterback, but the coaching staff really could use a good game here. Defensive players have questioned the endgame soft-coverage approach in a few losses, including last week’s setback at Dallas, and Leslie Frazier and his staff are on thin ice. The roster is banged up, and a home loss in primetime could be even more devastating.
9. What a hot mess the NFL has been in Florida this season. How telling is it that the problems of the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — granted, many of them outside the lines of the field — have been more pronounced and dissected than that of the 0-8 Jacksonville Jaguars? The Dolphins head to Tampa on Monday night in what is sure to be a difficult broadcast, from a PR standpoint, for both teams. The Richie Incognito stain isn’t being rubbed out anytime soon, and the Greg Schiano situation looms as a continued concern. If there’s a bright side on the field, it’s that the Dolphins evened their record at 4-4 with a big win last Thursday and the Bucs put forth their best foot forward in an overtime loss at Seattle on Sunday. Both teams could use a good game to ease the tension.
10. And now for the rest of the Week 10 slate … Over their last 15 games, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-11, and they look to end their losing ways against a Buffalo Bills team that likely will have E.J. Manuel back for the first time since hurting his knee more than a month ago. … The Seattle Seahawks are 4-1 on the road but have a point differential of only plus-9 (compared to plus-74 in four home games), but they’ll look to snuff out the fading Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of the playoff game from January — a 30-28 thriller. … The Indianapolis Colts, coming off yet another statement victory, head to face the streaky St. Louis Rams and hoping to stave off a relentless pass rush with the Colts’ still-shaky pass protection. … A New York Giants defense that has been mediocre at best — their two wins came vs. backup quarterbacks — must find a way to stop the running prowess of the Oakland Raiders’ Terrelle Pryor. These teams’ last meeting, in 2009, was a 44-7 Giants blowout. … If the Jaguars are going to win a game, this is one of the few remaining chances, but it comes on the road against a Tennessee Titans team that still remains in the postseason picture.
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