This week's First Fifteen takes a look at the biggest games with four major NFC contenders on bye:
1. Tim Tebow takes a backseat for a minute to the Lions, who have reached a flashpoint in their season. With two straight losses, the darling Lions must respond and find some solutions to a growing problem. The past two weeks against the 49ers and Falcons, despite the postgame blowups with coaches' handshakes and talk of dirty play, they have been smacked around a little and outmuscled at the point of attack. On top of that, the Lions have gotten out of rhythm offensively with QB Matthew Stafford looking off his game, and head coach Jim Schwartz chalks that up — using a basketball analogy — to those teams slowing the tempo down. "Maybe you are a team that likes to fast-break and you got (an opponent) that is slowing the ball down going down the court or knocking it down after a made basket so you can't fast break or the other way around," Schwartz said. "You haven't played your game, you played the opponents' game. I think, in particular the last two weeks, that has been the case with us offensively, defensively, special teams-wise is we have played on our opponents' terms rather than our own terms." Well, guess what, Jim: No one slows it down like the Broncos ... or do they? Keep reading.
2. OK, it's Tebow Time in the Fifteen. We're talking today about his final five minutes of regulation (9-of-12 passing, 121 yards, two TDs, one sack; 19 yards rushing; two-point rush conversion) rather than the first 55 (4-of-15 passing, 40 yards, five sacks; 44 yards rushing), and with good reason. And there's a funny little catch-22 thing going on with Tebow and the Broncos. On the one hand, John Fox's even-keeled, slow-paced style kept the score low and allowed them to come back and beat the Dolphins. But on the other, by handcuffing Tebow so much, he looked slow and indecisive with his pass reads; it wasn't until the Broncos sped things up offensively late, down 15-0, that Tebow started to get into the flow of the game. Brian Dawkins said it best on Tebow, via the Denver Post's Mike Klis: "When it gets crunch time, he trusts what he sees. That's what I see. He trusts things, and he just lets it fly. Early on in the game, he was maybe second-guessing things. If he'll let it go, he'll do good things for us." Of course, it's coaching too, and it was clear, from the Schwartz quote above, that the Lions are struggling to stop the power run game, so look for Fox to pound it early and stay conservative. But, with RB Willis McGahee (broken hand) out for this one, does Fox turn to Knowshon Moreno? Worth noting: It was Lance Ball who got the handoffs in overtime against the Dolphins.
3. The Patriots have been healing up on bye, we assume, because Bill Belichick isn't saying. It sounds like they could get LB Jerod Mayo and perhaps OT Sebastian Vollmer back against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have rebounded from a somewhat shaky start, although head coach Mike Tomlin has said that the jury is out on his team until proven otherwise. The Patriots have inched closer to defensive respectability, but you get the feeling that this one could be a shootout. The Steelers seldom have slowed down Tom Brady over the years, but they might have the wideouts to engage him in a track meet. Ben Roethlisberger would be just fine with that, likely having seen the New England secondary in retreat mode in several games. Mike Wallace is arguably the best deep threat in the game right now, and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown can strike at any point, too. That's good news with Hines Ward (ankle) looking dicey for this one. The air assault could be quite fun to watch.
4. Say this about the Steelers: They are still tough and resilient. They have lost a lot of good players and have been humbled a few times this season, but they can still find ways to win. The latest to fall — again — is DE Aaron Smith, just a valuable piece to that defense when healthy. So the call goes — again — to Ziggy Hood, who filled in for Smith during the Steelers' Super Bowl run last season. Cameron Heyward, who looked good in the preseason, also will pinch hit, making the loss of Smith less hefty.
5. The NFC East is a crapshoot. The Cowboys could win it. So could the Giants or Eagles. So that makes every divisional game big, even those involving the Redskins. This weekend, in Eagles-Cowboys, both teams are well-rested. The Eagles were on bye and the Cowboys ... played the Rams. The Johnny Come Lately is RB DeMarco Murray, who rushed for a franchise-best 253 yards in his first start but wasn't even touched on his 91-yard score in the first half. This sets up a fascinating matchup then against the Eagles' run defense, which was a few plies thicker than paper maché before it hardened significantly against the Redskins (43 yards rushing) in Week Six.
6. The fact that the Eagles remain in the race says a lot about the talent in the East. It's not a banner year in the division by any stretch, and the Eagles have to be very happy to get DEs Trent Cole (calf) and Brandon Graham (knee) and OLT Jason Peters back in this huge primetime game in Philadelphia. The Cowboys won in Philly last season, but it was a mostly meaningless game in Week 17, and the Eagles had already won in Dallas. The big excitement should come with seeing what Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has cooked up for Michael Vick. Needless to say, Ryan wasn't too concerned about A.J. Feeley this past week and had a rather banal scheme for the Rams. For Vick? It might be quite fresh, but it has to be one that keeps Vick in the pocket more than outside it, accounts for his scrambling off seven-step drops and one that hems in the deep game with DeSean Jackson. Oh, and Ryan might want to commit two defenders to LeSean McCoy, who seems to kill everyone.
7. The Dolphins and Jaguars play two contenders and division leaders on the road in the Giants and Texans, respectively. That's where the similarities for the former two teams veer off track though, following the Jaguars' impressive, albeit ugly, 12-7 home victory over the Ravens. With it, the Jags pulled Jack Del Rio out from the quicksand; Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, though, he's in deep. We have to prepare for the possibility that it could be his final week coaching in Miami. Although we should not be writing his obit quite yet, his legacy for turning a 1-15 mess in 2007 around to an 11-5 mark in Sparano's first season should remain strong. The problem now is that the team is perhaps in worse shape than it was then and it looks more and more like someone else is going to get the chance for a second turnaround. If the Giants roast the Dolphins — and Matt Moore struggled against that New York rush in the opener last season while playing for the Panthers — Sparano could be toast.
8. Two other coaches who might not be on the hot seat but certainly are feeling a bit toasty are the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt and the Colts' Jim Caldwell, and they each have tough games (isn't that how it goes?). Cards RB Beanie Wells (knee) is certainly out, and you know the Ravens are going to be quite hot under the collar after their surprising loss to the Jags on a little trip down the coast. OK, so we know the Ravens' defense will be hell-bent to take apart Kevin Kolb and Co. But can the offense get anything going? Even if Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton knows these Ravens well from all those years on the Steelers' staff, he has to find a way to put a little edge in this group. They stop the run pretty well, and Ray Rice is coming off an awful game, but the Cardinals don't do much in the way of forcing turnovers or curbing deep passes. Expect Joe Flacco to work on that deep touch this week. He found out a bit too late on Monday that he needs to be looking more for rookie speedball Torrey Smith, who might be special.
9. This is the point in the season when many teams, as you've been reading, start getting hit by a lot of injuries. But no team has been hit of late like the Redskins. They have lost five offensive starters the past two weeks — including OLT Trent Williams, RB Tim Hightower and WR Santana Moss — and none of them are expected to be available against the Bills in Buffalo. John Beck turned in about a B-minus performance in his first start in nearly four years, rebounding from an awful beginning to throw for 279 yards and run for a 10-yard TD. He was OK against the Panthers. But the Bills' secondary has a knack for interceptions (second in the NFL in INT percentage) and Beck threw one Sunday. Without Moss or Chris Cooley, you're going to see a lot of Beck throwing to Jabar Gaffney (who lost a big fumble in Week Seven) and Fred Davis, who is the new go-to guy. Rookie WRs Niles Paul and Leonard Hankerson suddenly have been thrown into the fire, too.
10. The Bills hope to have OLT Demetrius Bell back for this one, but if not it will be Andy Levitre at left tackle going up against OLB Brian Orakpo, who remains on a tear. That could be a mismatch the Redskins can exploit, and rookie OLB Ryan Kerrigan and DE Adam Carriker on the other side have been great. The problem, as Sunday's loss to the Panthers showed, the Redskins are vulnerable to diverse run-pass offenses. Look for the Bills to get the ball out of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick's hands quickly and into those of RB Fred Jackson. The Redskins have regressed a little against the run, and the Bills are patient, willing to chip away all day. They have only 16 passes of 20 yards or longer on the season and love to run their Chinese water torture offense to beat teams down steadily and patiently.
11. Rookie saviors Cam Newton and Christian Ponder face off in Charlotte, which is about an eight-hour drive from Tallahassee. The interesting thing is how these teams have changed in recent weeks. The Vikings started out the season building leads and then blowing them, but they now have fallen behind big two games in a row before Ponder nearly rallied them to a shocking win. And the Panthers, authors of several close games to start the season, now have been a part of back-to-back double-digit contests — a 14-point loss to the Falcons and a 13-point win Sunday over the Redskins. Have no illusions: As well as both QBs played Sunday, their teams are flawed, and in some cases badly. The Panthers are undisciplined (13 penalties in Week Seven), sketchy on special teams and unable to stop the run (Adrian Peterson, anyone?). The Vikings have a miserable secondary, a patchwork offensive line and might be without Percy Harvin, who injured his rib again.
12. It might not seem like it, but this is the type of game that could tell us a lot about the Bengals. Win on the road at noisy Qwest Field in Seattle and it will be a nice feather in their caps; lose to the Seahawks coming off a miserable offensive performance and we might know that the hot start was a bit misleading. Back to that noise: It can be a bit unnerving for a young quarterback, but Andy Dalton strikes me as a guy who might be able to handle it. He has been the most even-keeled and steady rookie quarterback this season, and you can bet that Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will simplify things so that Dalton can manage the surroundings. As for the Seahawks, they have good reason to be steamed about Kam Chancellor's textbook hit on Colt McCoy being called a penalty on Sunday. But they have to mystified why Red Bryant, who was having one of the best games of his career with two blocked FG attempts, would inexplicably commit a pointless and moronic personal foul at game's end, allowing the Browns to run out the clock. What I doubt is shocking to some Seahawks fans is that Charlie Whitehurst struggled. Pete Carroll didn't seem too impressed with his relief win over the Giants, so he couldn't have been shocked with his stinker in Cleveland. Might we see Josh Portis? With all the other rookie quarterbacks starting, why not?
13. The suddenly viable 3-3 Chiefs and their opportunistic defense take on the suddenly shaky 4-2 Chargers, who blew an 11-point lead at MetLife Stadium and took some guff from some Jets in the aftermath. What's interesting to note is that these teams' current paths started right after they met the first time this season, in Week Three, after Eric Weddle picked off Matt Cassel with under a minute left to protect a 20-17 Chargers win in San Diego. The Chiefs seemed to be onto something, scheme-wise, as they picked off Philip Rivers twice and kept the game close despite being awful offensively in the first half as Cassel struggled. Since that game, the Chargers have been shaky while the Chiefs, winners of three straight, have impressed. Interesting, too, that the Chargers are set to face the meat of their schedule after this game (vs. Green Bay and Oakland, at Chicago) right as the Chiefs' slate (vs. Miami and Denver) eases before a trip to New England. But the focus in this game is on Rivers, who threw another two picks Sunday and looks little like the MVP candidate he was entering this season. Can the Chiefs, who had six interceptions and two pick-sixes on Sunday at Oakland, short-circuit another passing game out West?
14. There are two AFC bye teams, the Jets and Raiders, and it's funny how much Sunday changed their fortunes so quickly. The Jets came into the Chargers game in desperate fashion while the Raiders were reenergized following the victory over the Browns and the shocking trade for Carson Palmer. Now, the Jets are seen as dangerous once again and the Raiders have legitimate concerns about getting Palmer up to speed, so the offensive players plan to spend the bye in the Bay Area to help the process. Funny what a few quarters of football can do, eh?
15. Four NFC teams have the week off, including the London duo of the Bears and Buccaneers, along with the Falcons and Packers. That's four NFC contenders with a combined record of 19-9 on the shelf this week. The other NFC North and NFC South teams, who all face teams at .500 or below, will feel the pressure to win.