Week 8 Sunday picks: Key matchups define the season’s halfway mark

Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has announced that running back Jonathan Stewart will get a chance to get the "hot hand" against Chicago's defense, which is a bit like the leader of a tiny village telling his primary warrior that he's going to get a lot of reps against the Roman Army. That said, it's nice to see that Rivera finally understands the nature of the business -- through Week 7, per our buddy Greg Cosell, the Panthers have just 20 running plays this season in which Cam Newton is under center.

"I want to see one guy pound and get a rhythm, then see the other guy pound and get a rhythm," Rivera told the Charlotte Observer. "To me it's hard for a back to get a rhythm when you're coming out every other play. So just looking back at some of those things philosophically and saying, look, this is what we have to do."

What Steve Smith has to do is to find a way to get and stay open against Chicago's Charles Tillman, who just might be the best defensive player in the NFL right now. This one has "mismatch" written all over it, unless Carolina's iffy defense somehow throws Jay Cutler off his game. We think Cutler wins this battle of emo quarterbacks pretty decisively.

Pick: Bears 27, Panthers 10

San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Browns

The Browns had to put linebacker Scott Fujita on injured reserve this week, but they also got defensive tackle Phil Taylor back from a torn pectoral muscle that had robbed him of his second season to date. Taylor might not play much (or at all), but if he does, that's a big boost to an ailing run defense. The Chargers, meanwhile, are still reeling from their howlingly bad game against the Denver Broncos two Mondays ago, when they fell down after putting up a 24-point lead and gave up 35 unanswered points.

During the subsequent bye week, Chargers GM A.J. Smith blamed himself for the team's travails, which has us thinking that the Mayans were on to something. Bad news for the Chargers: Philip Rivers isn't too far ahead of Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in terms of efficiency. If Rivers and his team don't pull this one out, 2013 could start awfully early in San Diego.

Pick: Chargers 20, Browns 17

Seattle Seahawks at Detroit Lions

This week, ultra-talented and ultra-mouthy Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman renamed himself "Optimus Prime" on Twitter, all the better to steel himself for the upcoming battle with Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. Sherman doesn't really need such conceits, as he and the rest of the Seattle secondary have played wonderfully this season. On the other side of the ball, Matthew Stafford has not played well at all this year, and Detroit's "What? Run the ball?" offense is in a lot of trouble as a result. .

Seattle's defensive line is looking to recover from the pounding given to it by Frank Gore and the San Francisco 49ers' offensive line two Thursdays ago, and Detroit's secondary should provide an easy path even for Seattle's receivers, who were dropping passes in that 49ers game as if Koren Robinson and Jerramy Stevens were still on the roster.

Pick: Seahawks 23, Lions 13

New England Patriots at St. Louis Rams

This game will be played in London, which doesn't really do much for the NFL in a general sense, besides denying the Rams a home game on their schedule. The Patriots will be without tight end Aaron Hernandez, but Tom Brady still has enough weapons to take on most defenses. Here's the problem for Brady -- the Rams aren't putting "most defenses" on the field this season. Jeff Fisher has engineered another one of his amazing team turnarounds, and St. Louis actually ranks ninth overall in Football Outsiders' defensive efficiency metrics.

New England's offensive line will be tasked with stopping the furious charge of defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long, and the Patriots' receivers should expect to go heavy on the Advil after a day with the Rams' aggressive secondary. Brady's offense has gained at least 350 yards in 16 consecutive games, and if that happens again Sunday, the Pats will break the NFL record set by the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense in 1999-2000. If the current Rams had a few more weapons, we'd call this an upset. As it is, expect a much closer game than some might think.

Pick: Patriots 24, Rams 20

Miami Dolphins at New York  Jets

The Jets released receiver Jason Hill this week in order to place former Australian rugby player Hayden Smith on their roster. Smith signed with the Jets in April, and he apparently projects as a tight end. Ah, Tony Sparano and his unconventional gambits. The weather could make this game look very rugby-ish if Frankenstorm (one of the few things on the East Coast getting more media attention than Tim Tebow right now) has its way.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins bring a very portable game to New Jersey, with an outstanding defense, effective running game, and surprising rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Jets fans will look on longingly if Tannehill outperforms Mark Sanchez, Tebow, Smith, and whatever other roster oddities the Jets decide to throw out there.

Pick: Dolphins 17, Jets 16

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are a mess, and the Falcons are playing near-perfect football. So, guess which of these teams is ignored, and which one gets far more press than it deserves? Yep. As a public service, we'll give you an update on the 6-0 Falcons. They have a tremendous defense led by Mike Nolan, who's coaching his charges up in some very interesting ways. You may see utility defensive lineman Kroy Biermann playing all over the field, Atlanta's safeties are great at bait-and-switch coverage, and the offense is a sight to behold.

It's not just that Matt Ryan has an abundance of riches in targets Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez -- the Falcons also have a versatile run game with Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rogers. Meanwhile, the Eagles are transitioning to a new defensive coordinator, and they haven't put up a quarterback sack in October. If you want a Stone-Cold Lead Pipe Lock, take Atlanta all the way.

Pick: Falcons 37, Eagles 20

Washington Redskins at Pittsburgh Steelers

It's one of the immutable laws of NFL physics: The Pittsburgh Steelers always have a strong defense, right? Right? Well, perhaps not. With injuries to several of his main men, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is fighting an uphill battle that would be tough for the greatest coach around (which LeBeau may very well be). The offense they're facing Sunday is like nothing they've ever seen. Robert Griffin is running a dizzying series of option packages with as many as three different running backs in the backfield,  but don't be fooled by the window dressing -- RG3 is one hell of a pocket passer.

Two things put the Steelers in the driver's seat here -- they're playing at home, and Washington's defense isn't exactly confusing opposing quarterbacks, no matter what DeAngelo Hall says.

Pick: Steelers 21, Redskins 17

Jacksonville Jaguars at Green Bay Packers

Hmmm. The Packers hung a 40-burger on the Houston Texans two weeks ago, and a 30-burger on the aforementioned Rams defense last Sunday. So, you'd expect Aaron Rodgers and friends to do to the Jags what Oregon did to Colorado, Right? Makes sense, but the NFL being what it is, we'll predict a much closer (but still convincing) win.

Nah ... we won't. This will get ugly early for the Jags, and it will stay there.

Pick: Packers 48, Jaguars 17

Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans

The big news in Tennessee is the rebirth of Chris Johnson, albeit against a Buffalo Bills defense that would struggle in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. Indy's defense presents a slightly tougher challenge, especially with Titans left tackle Michael Roos breaking his consecutive games streak at 119 after an emergency appendectomy. Replacement Mike Otto will see a lot of Dwight Freeney. Uh-oh.

Andrew Luck could have a field day against a Tennessee defense on pace to give up 544 points on defense this year -- only three teams have ever allowed more than 500 points in a season (1966 New York Giants, 1981 Baltimore Colts, and 2008 Detroit Lions), and those teams won a total of three games in those seasons. The Titans have already done that, but against Luck, his targets, and a surprisingly innovative offense, they'll need to do a lot better.

Pick: Colts 28, Titans 14

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs

This week, Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel announced that Brady Quinn would replace Matt Cassel as the team's starting quarterback. Crennel hopes that this move will usher in a new sense of fire and accountability, but what it more realistically do is bring a new era of underthrown swing passes to Crennel's team. The good news for the Chiefs is that their defense is playing well, and running back Jamal Charles is back to his old self.

Meanwhile, the Raiders are learning what the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks learned before them -- offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is ... well, not very good. Quarterback Carson Palmer revealed this week than even when the Raiders go no-huddle, as they frequently did in an overtime win over the Jaguars last Sunday, Knapp still calls the plays.

"If that's all you're going to come into the game with, you completely limit yourself, from personnel groups to formations to protections, in the red zone, on third down, (when you're) backed up," Palmer said of the no-huddle this week. "It's not feasible. It's a good change-up. It gets us out of a rut every once in awhile ... it's not something you can run all the time."

Of course, the rest of the league is beating defenses to death with it. So, yeah. There's that.

Pick: Chiefs 15, Raiders 10

New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys

NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reports that Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has decided to limit the amount of pre-snap communication between Tony Romo and the rest of the offense.

Oh, wait -- maybe that was actually owner Jerry Jones' call.

"We thought we have a heck of an advantage as well as Tony sees and when the ball was snapped, we wanted all of that we could get," Jones told Rapoport. "But to some degree, it created other issues relative to execution -- offsides penalties, those kinds of things. We've cut back some.

"Basically, we've created a little less pre-snap communication with the rest of the team," Jones went on. "That's not taking a load off him, but the communication before the ball is snapped has been tightened up and crisped. Made crisper."

Also waiting to "crisp" Dallas' offense? A Giants defense still burning over the season-opening loss to these very Cowboys.

Pick: Giants 27, Cowboys 17

New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos

Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com recently wrote a wonderful piece about Peyton Manning's recovery from several shoulder surgeries, and the role that David Cutcliffe, college coach to both Peyton and Eli, had in the process. It's appropriate in that the next step in Manning's amazing comeback will be to beat the holy crap out of the NFL's worst defense. For the Saints, the return of interim head coach Joe Vitt from suspension might help a bit, but it's defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo who's really on the hot seat. Drew Brees may have to throw for 1,000 yards to pull this one out.

Pick: Broncos 38, Saints 30