This week’s NFL schedule lacks serious sex appeal, but that doesn’t mean there are not important games — and a few key divisional matchups — going down. Here’s an early look at the biggest storylines heading into Week 8:
1. You really can sit and look and try to decide which game is most important on the docket this week before coming up with an answer. But we’ll go with a pretty good matchup with the Detroit Lions hosting the Dallas Cowboys. For the second week in a row, Calvin Johnson gets to showcase his skills opposite a premier receiver, this time in Dez Bryant. Johnson matched the Cincinnati Bengals’ A.J. Green and perhaps topped him with this insane catch. And now, to add fuel to the greatest-receiver debate, Nate Burleson says there is no debate. The Cowboys will be shorthanded again, but it’s not clear if they will be without DeMarco Murray and DeMarcus Ware or if Ware can somehow suit up. Both quarterbacks, mistake-prone at times, will need to be sharp against these vulnerable but opportunistic secondaries. Both teams can sense the opportunities ahead of them. The Cowboys play in a weak division, and the Lions can try to make a move with the Bears and Packers saddled with crucial injuries.
2. The New York Jets head to face the Cincinnati Bengals with fire in their bellies, facing an opponent that could — seriously — be a wildcard game preview. Geno Smith might be taking the fans and his teammates on a weekly Tilt-A-Whirl, but he’s also the only quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger to have four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first seven games. Opposite him, Andy Dalton is quietly quieting his doubters with some nice numbers of his own. Neither team is likely to generate a lot on the ground, so expect some passes to fly. Maybe brainiac Bengals practice-squad quarterback Greg McElroy can give his team some intel on his former Jets squad. You won't see too many better defensive fronts than the ones these two teams offer.
3. The New England Patriots have (sorta) put the field-goal debacle behind them and, in Bill Belichick parlance, moved onto the Miami Dolphins. They’ll be at home with a chance to get back on track against a Dolphins team they’ve beaten six straight, and 16 of the past 21 meetings. With Rob Gronkowski back after his impressive season debut (eight catches, 114 yards) and Tom Brady dismissing his hand injury, the Patriots are in better shape, but keep an eye on sneaky-good Dolphins counterpart Charles Clay, who is seeking a touchdown in his fourth straight game. The Dolphins have fallen to 3-3 after a few early impressive wins, suffering some pass-protection issues along the way. New left tackle Bryant McKinnie is on board but might not be ready to start for this one, so Patriots pass rusher Chandler Jones could be primed for a big game.
4. The Cleveland Browns have announced they’ll be starting their third quarterback of the season when Jason Campbell takes over for Brandon Weeden when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs. It will be the second week in a row the Chiefs will prepare for a quarterback they have not seen much of after facing the Houston Texans’ Case Keenum last week and eeking out a one-point victory. Campbell is starting because "it really is about production and ultimately being consistent in that area," according to coach Rob Chudzinski. We’ll see if the sometimes inert Campbell can dodge a fierce Chiefs rush that generated five second-half sacks last week.
5. Interesting one in Denver as the Broncos try to pick themselves up (after their first regular-season loss in 17 games) against the visiting Washington Redskins, who finally have built some offensive momentum in their shootout win over the Chicago Bears. Rhetorical question: If Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown came in cold and dropped four scoring drives on the Redskins, what will Peyton Manning do? Sure, he hasn’t been quite as machine-like the past few games, and he was rather off against the Indianapolis Colts, but attacking a Redskins secondary that is already struggling and may or may not have Brandon Meriweather could restoke the fireworks. This game, naturally, will have a little extra juice for Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, who spent 14 years in Denver and won a pair of Super Bowls there. It will be the first time he faces the Broncos since leaving the team. One more nugget: Out-of-nowhere tight ends Julius Thomas and Jordan Reed might end up being the featured receivers for Manning and Robert Griffin III, respectively. Reed (9-134-1 receiving in Week 7) was outstanding in his first start.
6. Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano is officially on watch at 0-6 with a Thursday night game against the Carolina Panthers. If the 3-3 Panthers embarrass the Bucs at home, who knows what will happen on Friday? With Doug Martin out, it will be up to Mike James to carry the load against a tough Carolina run defense. Quietly, on the other side of the field, Cam Newton is having a fine little run. Granted, we’re always waiting for the slide that has happened in his see-saw career, but he’s throwing great recently and showing more poise than he did in earlier losses. With a win, the Panthers can improve their record to above .500 for the first time since 2008. Can the Bucs afford to keep playing a zone defense that has given up big yards lately? We’ll see.
7. Another primetime game, another Josh Freeman start? It’s not clear. Freeman suffered a concussion in Monday’s brutal loss to the New York Giants, and if he can’t go it will be Christian Ponder who gets the call. Unreal. Maybe the Vikings are born under a bad sign, but more important than luck in Sunday night’s home game against the Green Bay Packers is that the Vikings don’t forget about Adrian Peterson again. He was ignored in the second half of the Giants loss and must be featured against a banged-up Green Bay Packers defense that allowed him to rush for 409 yards and two touchdowns in two regular-season meetings last season. Amazing: Peterson is actually 12 rushing yards ahead of last year’s pace through six games, even though he was being brought back slowly then following knee surgery. On the other side, though, slowing down Aaron Rodgers — even without some of his top receiving options — could prove too much for a taxed Vikings secondary. The Packers will be seeking their 14th victory in 15 tries against NFC North foes.
8. Tough spot on Monday night for Kellen Clemens to make his first start for the St. Louis Rams since 2011 (and only the 13th of his eight-year career), although if he struggles, most area fans might not notice: There could be a World Series game in town that night, if the series goes at least five games. Clemens will face the Seattle Seahawks, who shut the door on Carson Palmer and have had a few days of extra rest for this contest. The Seahawks will have to be patient and likely won’t get either of their starting offensive tackles or Percy Harvin back for this one, but they still have Marshawn Lynch facing a Rams run defense that was better last week but has struggled on the whole this season.
9. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? If Michael Vick is to solidify his place as the Philadelphia Eagles’ starter, this is the time and place to start: facing a New York Giants team that, while coming off its first win, still doesn’t look like a winner. Vick is healthy, he says, and ready to play a full game after getting hurt midway through the first matchup — a 32-21 Eagles victory at MetLife Stadium. This one is at Philly, and the Eagles will, rather surprisingly, be going for their ninth win against the Giants in their past 11 head-to-head battles.
10. And now for the rest of the rest of the Week 8 matchups in quick form … The fact that the Jacksonville Jaguars, "hosting" the San Francisco 49ers in London, are going with Chad Henne in this one only confirms what we’ve all suspected: The Blaine Gabbert era is, for the most part, over and done with. If the Jaguars score an offensive touchdown, it will be their first "at home" this season. … The Buffalo Bills travel to face the New Orleans Saints trying to reach .500 with a win and some magic happening with Thad Lewis, but the 5-1 Saints will be rested and ready. … A pair of 2-4 teams meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers heading to face the Oakland Raiders, who shockingly have taken three of the past four matchups head to head. This might be an old AFC-style shootout like back in the day. … The Arizona Cardinals can get back to .500 with a win over the visiting Atlanta Falcons, and many eyes will be on the running backs. Andre Ellington might be the featured back for Arizona, and Steven Jackson could return for the Falcons for the first time since injuring his groin in Week 2.
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