If you scoffed at last week’s schedule of games coming in, as we did, consider this: No Week 9 NFL game matches up two teams that are currently in the projected playoff field. Kind of stunning. That said, there are some important games on the schedule that will further propel contenders to the forefront and knock back a few pretenders out of the mix.
Here’s an early look at this week’s slate of games, in order of importance:
1. It’s a testament to the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers to be where they are considering their injuries this season, although the Bears’ wounds are far more fresh than the host Packers’ in their matchup on Monday night. The Bears will have to go again without Jay Cutler (replaced again by Josh McCown), and they might be starting their first four 2013 draft picks this weekend — offensive linemen Kyle Long and Jordan Mills and possibly linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene. Aaron Rodgers has beaten the Bears the past six times he has faced them, including the 2010 NFC title game, and he’ll be attacking a secondary that has been smoked repeatedly this season. But don’t forget about the burgeoning Packers run game: Rookie back Eddie Lacy leads the league in rushing yards over the past four weeks with 395.
2. The New York Jets allowed 49 points (granted, 14 of them came from defensive scores) to the Cincinnati Bengals. This week’s opponent: The New Orleans Saints. The Rex Ryan vs. Rob Ryan battle will be debated and parsed heavily, and there’s no question that Rex has to come up with a viable plan to slow down Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and the rest of that Saints offense. It also will be interesting to see what tricks Rob tries against mistake-prone quarterback Geno Smith, but he has shown the ability to throw downfield and the Saints are giving up a hefty 9.2 yards per attempt. One way to help Smith will be with a power-run game, and perhaps it’s time that ex-Saint Chris Ivory busts out some barreling runs against his old club. If the Jets want to show they’re for real, this is as good a stage as any.
3. Happy Halloween! Thursday night’s game features the Cincinnati Bengals heading to face the Miami Dolphins, and there are a few costume ideas that could make the game even more interesting. We suggest that Andy Dalton dresses as a lobster (easy) and Mike Wallace dresses as a No. 1 receiver (ooh, burn). Really, if you have not watched Dalton of late, you’re missing his best football. He has strung together three straight 300-yard games in the four-game win streaks and (mostly) eliminated the head-scratching throws he had been prone to before. The Dolphins must stanch the bleeding now. They have lost four straight and blew a 17-3 third-quarter lead against the New England Patriots last week. The Dolphins’ hopes must lie in exploiting a banged-up Bengals defense. Mike Sherman’s play calling and Wallace’s role have been hot topics of late.
4. If Super Bowl titles are the metric of choice, then we have a barnburner when the Pittsburgh Steelers go on the road to face the New England Patriots. Of course, we know that neither team has looked exactly right this season — the Steelers more so than the Patriots. Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady can fill up a hand’s worth of rings in their careers combined, and these teams have had some epic battles over that time. But slow starts and road woes (they’re 1-3 this season) have killed the Steelers, and only last week did the Patriots find a solution for their previously dreadful third-quarter performances. This could come down to which defense makes enough game-changing plays.
5. Sunday night we’ll find out the immediate effect of the Reggie Wayne injury and whether the Indianapolis Colts can find solutions in the passing game against a Houston Texans squad that, despite their 2-5 record, have allowed the fewest receptions and yards to wide receivers this season. It will be up to T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Lavon Brazill (don't forget about him) and Coby Fleener to build off the bye-week preparation and produce. The Texans, though, have offensive concerns of their own. Despite a positive first start for Case Keenum, who will go again here despite Matt Schaub being cleared for play, he took too many sacks (five vs. the Chiefs) and must look more for Andre Johnson in the red zone. Johnson has been targeted by Texans quarterbacks a mere one time this season in the end zone.
6. The San Diego Chargers head to face the Washington Redskins as contenders for the first time in a while. Led by the resurgent Philip Rivers, a surprising pass rush despite injuries on that side of the ball and even-keeled head coach Mike McCoy, the Chargers have a chance to be two games above .500 at this point of the season since 2009. The Redskins have dropped two of three games since their bye — allowing 31, 41 and 45 points in the games — and will be without suspended safety Brandon Meriweather. At 2-5 all is not lost for the Redskins, not in the someone-take-this-division NFC East, but they’ll have to string some W’s together soon. The defense the first three quarters against Peyton Manning was actually very good, and they’ll follow the same pattern of trying to force turnovers, play smart coverage and force long drives against Rivers. Will it work? If it doesn’t, things will start looking bleak barring some late-season magic.
7. Can Terrelle Pryor carry the Oakland Raiders into the playoff picture on his back? His 93-yard dash against the Pittsburgh Steelers — guard Mike Brisiel called him a "dadgum gazelle" — was the kind of play he has made all season along, and he might have another dose of the dynamic in store against a Philadelphia Eagles defense that has been searching for answers nearly all season. It’s also an Eagles game that must play the shell game against with its quarterbacks this week, and the hope is that Nick Foles (recovered from a concussion) can regain his form following a brutal performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7. Prior to that he had been quite good. And the Eagles are pretty good on the road (3-1) and horrible (0-4) at home, so maybe getting away will be a good thing.
8. Welcome back, Percy Harvin? We’ll see. He’s practicing this week and hopes to make his Seattle Seahawks debut Sunday against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers if he can. The timing couldn’t be better with the news that Sidney Rice suffered a torn ACL Monday night. Can Harvin play offensive tackle, though? This is actually a quality defensive line that the Bucs throw out there, despite their 0-7 record, led by Gerald McCoy. And given the way the Seahawks struggled so mightily to run block and pass protect for Russell Wilson, you’d hate to see something really bad happen because of what’s going on up front.
9. The Baltimore Ravens come off their bye to travel to face the Cleveland Browns, and seven weeks have passed since the Ray Rice-Phil Taylor spitting game. That’s mostly saliva under the bridge by this point, and of greater importance is that both teams feel they need a win to keep pace with the hot first-place Bengals. The Ravens have had a week to rest up on bye and prepare for the trip to Cleveland, and they’ll get a good first look at Jason Campbell, the Browns’ third starting quarterback this season who actually looked competent last week, avoiding pressure and making key throws. But the new running back they’ll also be facing, Willis McGahee, hasn’t offered much. Guessing these two watered-down offenses will struggle to produce points against these quality defenses. 13-10 game, anyone?
10. And now for some quick hitters on the rest of the Week 9 games … The talk of the Kansas City Chiefs not beating anyone will continue if they take down the Buffalo Bills Sunday with either Thad Lewis (injured and sick) or Jeff Tuel. The quarterbacks the Chiefs have beaten in the past three games have been Ryan Fitzpatrick, Pryor and Keenum, none their teams’ starters as late as August. … The Atlanta Falcons spent all offseason studying out to stop Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers’ offense, but they did so thinking they’d have a healthy defense. And offense, for that matter. … The Minnesota Vikings head to face the Dallas Cowboys a wounded team. Really, both teams are, but there is a good chance the Cowboys will get DeMarco Murray back. … The St. Louis Rams host the Tennessee Titans in Rams head coach Jeff Fisher’s first meeting against his old club.
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