Week 9: Game Previews

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2)
Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Last meeting: In Oct. 2008, the Giants rallied from a 14-12 deficit in the fourth quarter for a 21-14 win capped by TE Kevin Boss catching a 2-yard touchdown with 3:07 remaining.
Streaking: Including Super Bowl XLVI, Eli Manning has won eight straight against AFC teams and has 12 wins in his past 14 games in October.
Game of thirds: The Steelers are tops in the NFL with a 51.9 percent third-down conversion rate and Ben Roethlisberger has a strangle grip on coordinator Todd Haley's nuanced offense. The Giants have been gutted with predictable third-down looks (13 of 27) the past two games. Using quick reads and releases is making his offensive line look good, but Roethlisberger is still a threat to scramble and make something good happen when protection breaks down. One of his favorite targets, TE Heath Miller, has an intriguing matchup against NFL takeaways leader Stevie Brown and LB Michael Boley. A post-up pass-catcher, Miller has been Roethlisberger's security blanket, but softer and more inviting coverage might be found on the edges. The Giants don't have the depth to stick the Steelers' three-wide formation with man coverage, and Roethlisberger can rip apart a soft zone at the seams using Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to pick up six- to 10-yard chunks. To offset the Giants' four-man rush, the Steelers are likely to first set the tempo with bigger formations designed to soften the defense.
Threw and blue: The Steelers are first in the AFC in defense but substandard for a Pittsburgh defense in terms of sack production and takeaways. The Giants are plus-13 in turnover margin but QB Eli Manning can be shaken when teams take away the running game. Last week, when the Giants went just 1 of 4 in the red zone, Manning wasn't able to get the ball in the middle of the field and didn't have time to wait for WRs Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz to work back to the ball. The Giants have wasted three or more red-zone chances in three games this season. Manning has been sacked only twice in 176 attempts since Week 3. The Steelers compensate for not having SS Troy Polamalu with more nickel packages and are ranked in the top five in pass defense, third-down defense and red-zone defense.
Need to know: Roethlisberger is 23-7 in his career against NFC opponents. ... The Giants have 13 sacks and 13 takeaways in the past three games

Buffalo Bills (3-4) at Houston Texans (6-1)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
Gameplan: The media would love to make the story about Bills DE Mario Williams' return to Houston following wrist surgery - and Williams has a history of responding in the face of a challenge. But Buffalo's ability to be competitive boils down to its last-ranked defense allowing 6.0 yards per carry coping with the league's No. 6 ground game. If Texans RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate are averaging a first down every two carries, Williams' ability to get in the backfield will be a non-story. Houston allows only 83.0 rushing yards per game - 93.9 fewer than Buffalo. Bills RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller should be as healthy as they've been in weeks coming off the bye and must be productive. If Buffalo falls behind, turnover-prone QB Ryan Fitzgerald is in for a long day against a defense that is the backbone of Houston's plus-seven turnover margin.
Need to know: Spiller's 7.3 yards-per-carry average is best in the NFL since 1960 for runners with a minimum of 70 rushing attempts. ... Texans DL J.J. Watt has 10 pass deflections, with four being intercepted.

Miami Dolphins (4-3) at Indianapolis Colts (4-3)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots
Gameplan: The Dolphins' defense and special teams have stepped up during the team's three-game winning streak, while the ground game that was so impressive during the first month of the season has leveled off. Whether rookie QB Ryan Tannehill (knee) or Matt Moore start this game, head coach Joe Philbin wants the negative plays eliminated from the ground game. The Colts allow 137.4 rushing yards per game (27th in the NFL) and 4.8 yards per carry. Indianapolis has allowed 18 sacks, but QB Andrew Luck has been impressive in his ability to stand tall in the face of pressure and deliver accurate passes. He's getting increased production from his backfield, but this game falls on Luck's arm with Miami third in the NFL allowing 82.0 rushing yards per game. However, Indianapolis must not abandon the ground game and risk a huge disparity in time of possession.
Need to know: Only Drew Brees (446) has more passing yards on the road this season than Tannehill (431). ... Luck has thrown for 1,971 yards through seven games, the most in NFL history for a rookie behind Cam Newton's 2,103 last season.

Arizona Cardinals (4-4) at Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
Gameplan: The Packers view this as a pivotal bridge game before hitting their bye week, getting several key players back in the lineup and hitting the road for consecutive games at the Lions and Giants, so focus against a scuffling opponent shouldn't be an issue. Head coach Mike McCarthy admitted he has been too quick to pull the plug on the no-huddle offense, disrupting the rhythm of QB Aaron Rodgers. With barely a hint of a running game to count on and the Cardinals' ability to blitz the interior of the offensive line, expect the Packers to keep the tempo high and prevent Arizona from substituting. The Cardinals' ground game is even more inept, and the struggling offensive tackles will be at the mercy of the Packers' aggressive 3-4 scheme. Arizona must use screens and slants as a counter-punch, leaving QB John Skelton vulnerable to safeties who can break on routes will little fear of being beat over the top.
Need to know: The Cardinals have a seven-game losing streak at Green Bay, dating back to 1955. ... Arizona and Green Bay are tied for the NFL lead with 26 sacks.

Detroit Lions (3-4) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Ron Pitts, Mike Martz, Kristina Pink
Gameplan: The Lions have a league-high 94 fourth-quarter points as they've been forced to make several furious rallies, but the offense scored two first-half touchdowns last week and the trickle-down effect was evident. QB Matthew Stafford is receiving more help from his ground game, and that has contributed to just eight sacks over the past five games. Jacksonville doesn't rush the passer well and is beat up in the secondary, while Stafford has young WRs Titus Young and Ryan Broyles exploiting defenses rolling coverage to Calvin Johnson. The Jaguars must find a way to run the ball minus Maurice Jones-Drew, or QB Blaine Gabbert will be at the mercy of Detroit's talented defensive line. The Lions have given up 17 plays of 20-plus yards, and Jacksonville must find a few of those big plays to be competitive.
Need to know: The Lions have trailed in the fourth quarter of every game this season. ... Detroit WR Mike Thomas was acquired from Jacksonville this week.

Chicago Bears (6-1) at Tennessee Titans (3-5)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin
Gameplan: Since Week 6, Chris Johnson leads the NFL with 385 rushing yards, but the Bears are bullish with the No. 1-ranked run defense in the NFL allowing 77.8 yards per game. QB Matt Hasselbeck has seen plenty of this defense -- in scheme and personnel -- and has a 96.2 rating in his past three starts against Chicago (zero interceptions). Involving multiple receivers to tax the Bears' liberal safeties is critical, but revving up their own pass rush is the key for the Titans. Jay Cutler enters having been sacked 11 times in the past two games, but the Bears' base offense can really plow against a defense lacking disciplined tackling and gap control. RB Matt Forte, equally dangerous as a receiver, could collect yards by the dozen if the Titans don't gang-tackle.
Need to know: The Bears have held their first seven opponents to a total of 22 points in the first (10) and third (12) quarters. ... Hasselbeck has one interception in his past 106 pass attempts.

Carolina Panthers (1-6) at Washington Redskins (3-5)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Gameplan: The Panthers average 18.3 points per game, but with no dominant phase of the game to count on when games get tight, Carolina is consistently coming up short in the fourth quarter with five of six losses by six or fewer points. Dialing back the offense is a mission to preserve QB Cam Newton as well as a defense run ragged by abbreviated possessions from its own offense. The Redskins flash more big-play potential in the running game, but the Panthers have been far better since MLB Luke Kuechly took over for Jon Beason inside. He's the key to containing fourth-ranked rusher Alfred Morris, a bowling ball of a runner who is only a modest speed threat. Teams that key their run defense on QB Robert Griffin have been stung by Morris' slashing style.
Need to know: The Panthers have lost their past four games by a total of 12 points. ... Kuechly is averaging 15 tackles per game at middle linebacker.

Denver Broncos (4-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-4)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
Gameplan: The last person Marvin Lewis and the Bengals wanted to see coming after three straight losses and a bye is Peyton Manning. He owns the Bengals -- 7-0 with 17 touchdowns and three interceptions in his career -- and the Bengals' porous pass defense is allowing opponents to complete 67 percent of their passes. Getting rookie first-round CB Dre Kirkpatrick on the field in nickel packages for the first time would be a boon. The Bengals are trying to slow down Andy Dalton's release to give his receivers time to uncover. The best way to do so is a better blend in play-calling. The Broncos have speed outside but aren't a dominant group up the gut. The return of C Jeff Faine (hamstring) gives Cincinnati an edge inside.
Need to know: The Bengals next week become the first team since 2006 (Titans) to face the Manning brothers in consecutive games. ... Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas has 100-plus receiving yards in four of seven games this season.

Baltimore Ravens (5-2) at Cleveland Browns (2-6)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Marv Albert, Rich Gannon
Gameplan: The Ravens are 28th in the NFL in total defense, surrendering 400 yards per game. The return of Terrell Suggs on the edge should push some of the busted outside runs back to the middle of the field, but there are holes in the second level to be exploited by hard-running rookie RB Trent Richardson. He's a powerful runner and dangerous after the catch. FS Ed Reed has 10 interceptions in 20 career games against the Browns. QB Brandon Weeden is improving, but wants to spot Reed before uncorking deep balls to WRs Josh Gordon and Greg Little. The Ravens want to hike the touches for RB Ray Rice, who only had nine carries against the Houston Texans before the bye, while remaining mindful of balance. FB Vonta Leach will be on the field more to help clear Rice's path, but Baltimore won't go entirely conservative.
Need to know: The Ravens have won nine straight against Cleveland, spanning John Harbaugh's tenure as head coach. ... Richardson has five rushing touchdowns in eight games; Cleveland had six total last season.

Minnesota Vikings (5-3) at Seattle Seahawks (4-4)
Sunday, 4:05 ET, FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan, Jaime Maggio
Gameplan: Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson is 3-0 at home, where he has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions, compared to his 1-4 record on the road with a 4-8 TD-INT ratio. Seattle's advantage at home, where it has beaten Dallas, Green Bay and New England this season, is its defense. Vikings QB Christian Ponder has thrown seven interceptions over the past four games with opponents focused on containing RB Adrian Peterson and taking away WR Percy Harvin's underneath routes. With no deep threat, Ponder has been susceptible to poor decisions. Seattle's wide receiver corps is thinned by injury and Wilson has made costly mistakes downfield in consecutive games. Look for the Seahawks to lean heavily on RBs Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin and play a field-position game.
Need to know: ... Wilson has 11 plays of 20-plus yards in just 41 completions (26.8 percent) at home, compared to 5.7 percent (5 of 88) on the road.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4) at Oakland Raiders (3-4)
Sunday, 4:05 ET, FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale
Gameplan: The Bucs traveled on a short week and dominated the Minnesota Vikings last time out, so they're confident they can fly cross-country and bring the same effort with 10 days between games. The primary concern is that just as rookie RB Doug Martin appeared ready to provide the recently-explosive offense with a strong running threat, Carl Nicks became the second Pro Bowl guard placed on injured reserve. The Raiders have tightened up their secondary despite injuries, but Bucs QB Josh Freeman will rack up yards if Oakland (10) sacks can't apply pressure. This could quickly turn into a shootout with Tampa Bay's 31st-ranked pass defense potentially without CBs Aqib Talib and Eric Wright. Raiders QB Carson Palmer has been working well out of the no-huddle, and RB Darren McFadden will be factor in the passing game even if Tampa Bay's No. 6 run defense clogs the rushing lanes.
Need to know: Freeman has thrown for 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns over the past three games. ... Oakland is 5-0 all-time at home against Tampa Bay.

Dallas Cowboys (3-4) at Atlanta Falcons (7-0)
Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Gameplan: Turnovers have been the common theme in all of the Cowboys' losses this season. Dallas has a minus-11 turnover margin and QB Tony Romo's 13 interceptions have been a mix of poor decisions and not being on the same page with his receivers. RB DeMarco Murray is expected to miss his third consecutive game with a foot injury, but the Cowboys need the balance the running game brings. It eases burden on Romo, and it's a Falcons' weakness -- Atlanta allows 5.1 yards per carry and isn't the best tackling defense in the league. The Falcons attempt to stay balanced to slow down opposing pass rushes, but the real battle will be outside between WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White and the Cowboys' strong cover corners. Look for QB Matt Ryan to also attack the second level of the defense, where Dallas sorely misses ILB Sean Lee.
Need to know: Witten needs four receptions to break Michael Irvin's (750) franchise record for career receptions. ... Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez has 99 career touchdowns.

Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) at New Orleans Saints (2-5)
Monday, 8:30 ET, ESPN, Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
Gameplan: Eagles QB Michael Vick's tenuous grasp on the starting job could get a little firmer against a Saints defense on a record pace for futility. His issues have been compounded by poor defense and special teams play that have Philadelphia's starting field position its own 23.9 yard line -- 31st in the NFL. And with little pass protection zapping the offense of many big plays, Vick struggles to drive the length of the field. The Saints struggle equally against the run and pass, but the Eagles are expected to spread the field with three- and four-receiver sets and attack with a bevy of quick routes. New Orleans is very one-dimensional offensively, but QB Drew Brees faces a defense that isn't rushing the passer well or generating turnovers. He'll also pepper the defense with a wide range of receiving targets, although TE Jimmy Graham's (ankle) status remains uncertain.
Need to know: Twelve of Eagles RB LeSean McCoy's past 46 carries have gone for zero or negative yardage. ... New Orleans is the first team in history to give up 400-plus yards in seven consecutive games.

--By Derek Harper and Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange