Here are the key early story lines for Week 10, which features some big divisional and non-conference games:
1. When you woke up Monday, it was a full week into November and the Bengals were a half game ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North. Sunday we get to find out how real the Who Deys are as they travel to Pittsburgh. (And let's not get ahead of ourselves, but the Bengals follow that up with a trip to Baltimore in Week 11.) Andy Dalton is starting to glean some support for Offensive Rookie of the Year because of his team's 6-2 record. He and Cam Newton might be completely different guys, but they share a command of the huddle that is rare in rookies. Witness Sunday at Tennessee: The Bengals needed a score and Dalton had them down to the Titans' 15-yard line, trailing 17-7 mid-third quarter. He took a three-step drop and as soon as that third heel hit the ground, Dalton fired a pass to Jerome Simpson, who barely crossed the goal line, on the skinny post. The TD got the Bengals back in the game and was the kind of throw that shows he's no ordinary rookie. We'll see how he faces perhaps the two toughest defenses in the NFL, however.
2. When Steelers S Ryan Clark tweeted at 4:19 a.m. EST that he had watched the replay of the loss to the Ravens, it confirmed what many of us already knew: This one hurt a lot for the Steelers. But they'll have to pick themselves up for the Bengals challenge, and it would be stunning if they lost two games in a row at home. The Steelers have to be kicking themselves for giving up the game-winning drive to Joe Flacco, and it will be fascinating to see the battle of youth (Dalton) vs. age (the sage Dick LeBeau, who also used to coach the Bengals, by the way). LeBeau took a little heat postgame for playing so aggressively, using bump-and-run coverage against the Ravens on the final drive, but his players love that style. Expect more of the same against Dalton and those young receivers. According to the Bengals' official website, citing Elias Sports Bureau, LeBeau has lost only once to a rookie QB in 12 tries — Troy Smith got him with the Ravens in 2007, the year before they drafted Flacco. Will LaMarr Woodley play? If James Harrison (three sacks, six QB hits) plays on the same possessed level he did Sunday night, it might not matter.
3. You get the feeling that the Falcons are really excited for this game. Not that the Saints are not; it's just that the Falcons have measured themselves against this team for the past three years and now they get to play them in the Georgia Dome right when they are heating up. It was great to get WR Julio Jones some light work (sorry, Colts fans) in Indy, as he got loose for an acrobatic score in traffic and an 80-yard catch and run for another TD. The Saints have been lacking big plays in the secondary and might be without CB Tracy Porter if his neck doesn't test out after that scary injury Sunday. Matt Ryan was a little careless with the pick-six he threw Sunday, but he otherwise has slowly improved. So has the defense, which has not gone unnoticed with head coach Mike Smith. "I really like the way that our defense has played the last four or five weeks," Smith said. "We've had some ups and downs, but the arrow is definitely going up." And the news that DT Jonathan Babineaux is getting healthy comes at a great time: the Saints' offensive line hasn't been at its best in recent games.
4. Once or twice a season, Saints head coach Sean Payton hands out bats to his players and designates that week's game a "bat game." It means it's time to lay the lumber for that game, which promises to be extra physical. Payton called Sunday's win over the Buccaneers a "bat game," and if you deem the run game a good indicator of physicality, the Saints won that battle, rushing for 195 yards and holding the Bucs to 84. Interesting call, though, designating it for the Bucs game — and not this coming Sunday's game against the Falcons in Atlanta. The assumption is that Payton felt his team needed to get back to running the ball and that they had to establish this prior to the Falcons game. Mark Ingram (heel) might not be ready for this one, and Pierre Thomas (hip) left the game Sunday for a bit, but Chris Ivory returned and had a nice game, helping to establish that punishing style. Bet we'll see more of Ivory in Atlanta.
5. The Jets seem to have their mojo back, winning three straight, and with that comes some bold talk heading into Patriots week. "It happens," Jets S Jim Leonhard said Monday of the Patriots losing two in a row. "They're not invincible. They're a great football team, but they've got beat by some pretty good teams, as well. I don't think they're going to panic up in New England, and we're not going to feel sorry for them, either." No they are not, and this is the Jets' chance to make a huge statement in the division. The Patriots, resilient as they are historically, are vulnerable. Anyone can see it. The Jets promise to hound the Patriots' receivers, who were slugged around by the Steelers and manned up often by the Giants the past two weeks. That's also what the Jets did to the Bills Sunday, and the result was three points for most of the game from the Bills' offense until it was out of contention.
6. It's not the reason they have lost two in a row heading into a tough game, but the Patriots are getting nothing from two of their more talented players, WR Chad Ochocinco and DT Albert Haynesworth, and both appeared out of sorts on Sunday in the loss to the Giants. Ochocinco was targeted five times and he had no receptions. Haynesworth had a few early pressures and drew a holding call but finished with no tackles, was seen getting shouted at by Patriots DL coach Pepper Johnson on the sideline and was not seen in the game after about the nine-minute mark in the third quarter. This would be as good a game as any for those players to rise up and play to their reputations. The Patriots have not had their usual success throwing the ball lately, and they are facing a Jets defense that is coming off a mostly dominant performance in Buffalo. Likewise, you know the Jets have embraced their physical style again, so the Patriots can expect at least 40 rushing attempts.
7. The Giants have a chance to do something really special here. The schedule is an absolute killer, but all we need do is go back one year to the Steelers, who faced a similar gauntlet of a slate last season and their players credited the weekly challenges against the AFC's best as the reason they got to the Super Bowl. After the Giants' upset win in New England, down three key offensive starters, this is their goal. Their next five games, starting with Sunday's game in San Francisco against the impressive 7-1 49ers, is brutal: vs. Philly, at New Orleans, vs. Green Bay and at Dallas. We'll find out if the key Giants — WR Hakeem Nicks, RB Ahmad Bradshaw and C David Baas — as well as first-round CB Prince Amukamara can make the trip and play. The 49ers love to get down and dirty and play a straight-ahead power game that the Giants can match blow for blow. This will be old school football on the West Coast.
8. The 49ers have had a bad habit the past two weeks of lettings the Browns and Redskins, really two bad football teams, to remain in the game with fourth-quarter scores. It's a bad habit to get into, as anyone who watched the Giants pull one out in Foxborough will tell you. Major credit should go to Alex Smith for his smart, measured season, but you have to wonder if he has to crank it up a little this week. Yes, it's true, the Giants have inexplicably lost to Rex Grossman and Charlie Whitehurst, and for a half they made Matt Moore look quite good. But they also have contained Sam Bradford and Michael Vick, harassed Kevin Kolb (four sacks) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (three sacks, two interceptions) and made life very tough for Tom Brady on Sunday. Smith has been a game manager — and a very effective one at that — but at some point he must show he can win a game for the Niners. They are clearly shooting for a first-round bye and home playoff game with an incredible five-game lead in the NFC West, but the Giants are only a game behind them in the conference standings.
9. Thursday football! Yes, it's back as the Raiders and Chargers — go figure those two teams — square off in a key AFC West contest. In theory, every West game from here on out is crucial because the division is a hot, convoluted mess with three teams (including these two and the Chiefs) at 4-4 and the Broncos at 3-5. All four have been outscored by their opponents over the course of the season. Raiders head coach Hue Jackson said his team wasn't very smart on Sunday, a toned-down version of what Bill Callahan said a few years ago, and Jackson was right. The Raiders committed 130 yards in penalties, had terrible gap control against the run and had three turnovers. They lead the known universe in penalties (84) and penalty yards (730), and it's not even close. The Chargers have their own version of giveaway with Philip Rivers turning the ball over at a career-worse rate, including his three-pick (two returned for TDs) performance on Sunday. This will be the Chargers' third game in 11 days, too, mind you, and you have to imagine that defense is tired having chased the Packers around all day on Sunday. Don't expect a textbook 60 minutes here, in other words.
10. Lions-Bears is that much more significant now that the Bears went on the road and earned a huge win at Philly. They have rebounded from a 2-3 start, winning three straight, and will have revenge in mind when the Lions come to Chicago. The Monday Nighter in Detroit, you might remember, featured Jay Cutler making some of the best throws of his career, but the epic performance was marred by a ridiculous nine Bears false starts. Another signature performance was turned in by Jahvid Best in that game, as the Lions back rushed for 163 yards on 12 carries, including a stunning 88-yard TD. Problem is, he likely won't be available for this one, still set back by concussion issues. The Lions signed old friend Kevin Smith this week, which is a great story, but it likely will be the Maurice Morris show in this one. Edge: Bears.
11. Eagles-Cardinals will be billed as Kevin Kolb (maybe) vs. Michael Vick, but I guarantee the Eagles will be distracted with exacting some frustration revenge on the Cardinals after the Monday-night loss to the Bears. The Eagles were out of sync offensively most of the night and missed opportunities to win the game late. The stingy Bears held the Eagles to 5.2 yards per play, so you can bet the Cardinals (28th in yards allowed) are going to face an angry bunch in Philly. Will Kolb play? His toe is the issue, and it's not looking great early in the week. John Skelton did a fairly solid job replacing Kolb (minus those two horrible safeties) and kept Larry Fitzgerald (12 targets) plenty busy, which is always a good thing. With RB Beanie Wells clearly slowed by a knee injury the past two weeks, maybe the offense could use a boost. I nominate Patrick Peterson, who became the first player in NFL history to have three punt-return touchdowns in his first eight NFL games. Just have him run a few 9-routes and see if he can catch it. Hey, it couldn't hurt, right?
12. The Buccaneers rank in the top 12 in only one key offensive or defensive category, and it's sack percentage allowed — they rank second in the NFL there, keeping Josh Freeman relatively clean. So it's interesting that they face the Texans, who are in the middle of a defensive revival. The only key defensive statistic they do not rank in the top 10 in — including sack percentage allowed, where they are tied for fifth — is average gain per rush. They rank 11th, perish the thought. Speaking of the run, they have the best 1-2 RB combo in the NFL with little argument. Ben Tate (12-115-1 rushing vs. Cleveland) and Arian Foster (19-124-1) carved up the Browns, and the ball-control offense has helped make the defense better. Stopping them will prove to be tough for the Bucs, who just lost DT Gerald McCoy for the season. And Tampa has to defend its turf a little bit better. The Bucs are 3-1 in Florida (one additional "home" loss was in London to the Bears), but the three wins were by a combined 14 points. Oh, if you're wondering if WR Andre Johnson will play, Gary Kubiak said he'd be "day to day." So there you have it.
13. If this was the mid-1990s, Bills-Cowboys might have led this column (had it existed). As it stands, it's a pretty big contest for both teams. The Cowboys are hoping to have ILB Sean Lee, with a casted wrist, and RB Felix Jones back for the game, and this easily stands as the toughest contest on their schedule in the next month. The bad news is that WR Miles Austin could miss all of them, so Laurent Robinson, who has answered the call so far, will take his place. The Bills had some trouble in coverage Sunday against the Jets, getting hit with a few pass-interference calls and giving up a bevy of quick slants. But they also have to worry just a tad about their offense. If one Ryan brother (the Jets' Rex) can shut things down summarily, then another (the Cowboys' Rob, their defensive coordinator) certainly can do the same. Not sure if you have noticed, but these guys don't exactly keep their gums from flapping.
14. Might the Colts' game against the Jaguars be a must-win ... for both teams? The losing coach can't feel good about his situation. Fall to the 2-6 Jags and Colts head coach Jim Caldwell might be in dire straits. Based on the recent comments of owner Jim Irsay, it appears that the Polians have far more long-term security than his head coach. And as for Jacksonville, a defensive revival has stoked a few positive flames, but a loss to the winless and apparently offense-less Colts might put Jack Del Rio back in the target sights. The two quarterbacks have a few things in common: flowing locks and shaky outputs. Before the bye, hirsute Jaguars rookie QB Blaine Gabbert completed 10-of-30 passes and suffered a chest injury in a loss to the Texans. On Sunday, Colts QB Curtis Painter threw for 98 yards on 13-of-27 attempts. In other words, don't expect an offensive fashion show.
15. In a strange quirk of this lockout-altered schedule, there are no byes this week, the first full slate since Week Four, but four teams — the Steelers, Texans, Colts and Saints — will rest for a final time before we're 16 games each week the rest of the way out. The NFL created this extra padding, so to speak, in case the start of the season was delayed by a week or two; it could have shuffled things around a bit without wreaking havoc on the games, but that's all water under the bridge now. Week Nine looked great on paper and played itself out, but 10 has a chance to be special, too. Minus a few stinkers, nearly every game has some sort of playoff implications.