We're approaching the midpoint of the season, and the games keep getting closer and the NFL's middle class keeps getting bigger. Perhaps we'll see a little separation in Week Eight — here are the top 15 story lines for this week's action:
1. If you want a good idea why the Falcons are 6-0 (despite ranking 29th in rushing offense and 28th in rush “D”) and why the Eagles are 3-3 (despite ranking seventh in yards gained and 12th in yards allowed), look no further than turnovers. The Falcons are third in the NFL at plus-10 (17 takeaways, seven giveaways), and the Eagles are tied for 30th at minus-9 (17 giveaways, eight takeaways). These teams, which face off Sunday in Philly, are a contrast in opposites in many other ways, too. Matt Ryan is an MVP candidate. Michael Vick might be on the verge of being benched. The Falcons coasted into the bye week with some things to clean up but with no major issues, owners of the NFL’s only unbeaten record. The Eagles fired Juan Castillo, hinted other changes might be on the way and then were forced to revisit the awful details of Andy Reid’s son’s death. It was not a pleasant week around the NovaCare Complex. The game could be therapeutic for the Eagles, who need to start fresh. Or it could be more of the same in what quickly could turn into 2011 nightmare redux.
2. If there ever was a flashpoint for both teams, especially at quarterback, this game is it. Vick has soldiered on despite the waxing criticism and talk that he should be benched. "You just gotta stand tall,” he said this week. “It's not the first time I've been in this situation. I understand the most important thing is for me to go out there and continue to do my job and try to help this football team by winning games." The numbers show he can, if the Eagles avoid third-and-longs. He has thrown well on third downs and against the blitz, which the Falcons are doing more of this season under coordinator Mike Nolan. But Vick’s turnovers and completion percentage are in dire need of improvement. Despite Ryan’s three-pick game prior to the bye — that’s now six INTs in his past four games — he and the Falcons are confident and focused. "We're right where we need to be," Ryan said. "Bottom line, we just need to keep winning. Certainly we all need to have the mindset that we need to improve, and we do.”
3. If the country didn’t finally get a taste of how good Robert Griffin III can be in Week Seven against the Giants, it certainly will be tuning in Sunday against the Steelers. Three-for-three on fourth-down conversions, including the insane scramble-and-throw to Logan Paulsen for 19 yards. A 17-play, 93-yard drive. Another 89 rushing yards for Griffin. It’s becoming routine, weekly must-see TV. He has given the Redskins a chance to win every single game. They’re 3-4, but all four losses were by seven points or fewer and all came down to the final few minutes. When was the last time the Steelers saw a QB as dynamic as this? They faced Vick in Week Five, but even Giants defenders were quick to point out after Sunday that Griffin appears to be different. “I’m pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East,” Giants DE Justin Tuck said. “To face that guy twice a year is going to be a headache.” The Steelers get it once, on Sunday. That might be plenty for them to handle without Troy Polamalu, although the team has been getting on without him for a while now.
4. The Steelers were maybe the team of the 1970s. The Redskins were the non-49ers team of the 1980s. The Steelers were the non-Patriots team of the 2000s, and the Redskins might be the team of the 2010s (don’t we have a better name for this decade yet?) with Griffin at the helm. He’s 22. But until further notice, Ben Roethlisberger is the better quarterback — and he’ll have the edge of facing a Redskins secondary that is improving but still good for one or two major breakdowns per game. The Steelers gamely fought back to beat the Bengals, overcoming an 11-point deficit, and now are looking to win back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 16 and 17 last season. They have given away fourth-quarter leads in four of six games this season (including all three losses) but clamped down Sunday night, stoning the Bengals in their final five possessions — five punts, 28 yards, one first down. The Redskins are not likely to have WR Pierre Garcon back, and losing TE Fred Davis means newly signed Chris Cooley had better be in shape, although they rolled up 480 yards of offense against the Giants. No matter who plays, this has the makings of a very fun battle to watch at Heinz Field.
5. The Cowboys beat the Giants in Week One, which turned out to be the biggest outlier game of the season for both. The Cowboys have gone on to struggle to a 3-3 mark, with two blowout losses and two very narrow, tense victories. The Giants, meanwhile, have righted their ship quickly and have lost only once since; their five victories have been by a total of 77 points. It was just another ho-hum end-of-game theft job by Eli Manning. He had been off most of the day but flipped the switch when he had to, hitting Victor Cruz on a 77-yard lollipop down the seam for the win. If there’s one key difference between the teams now, it’s that the Giants are the coolest fourth-quarter team in the biz. The Cowboys are not. Jason Garrett coached like he was freaked out, both in the late loss to the Ravens and the close win over the Panthers. Sixty-two games through Week Seven have come down to a single score. Teams that handle close games better tend to win more. See where we are going with this?
6. Giants-Cowboys figures to be a lot like Jets-Patriots in Week Seven. It was the afternoon centerpiece, opposite only Jaguars-Raiders on the late-game slot, and we have another situation like that with only Raiders at Chiefs after 1 p.m. and before the Sunday-night game. The Giants come in pretty healthy, with WR Hakeem Nicks and RB Ahmad Bradshaw fighting through their foot injuries and DT Chris Canty appearing fine after a 25-play season debut off the PUP list. The Cowboys are hurting, with RB DeMarco Murray (foot) looking dicey and LB Sean Lee, their best player this season, is dealing with a sprained big toe — although Felix Jones’ knee appears fine. All the momentum is on the side of the world champs, although we did say that prior to Week One, too.
7. Those who look for signs can wonder if Malcolm Jenkins’ field-racing, TD-saving tackle in the Week Seven victory was the Saints’ turning point, but things appeared to be on the mend before that. The Week Five victory was huge, the bye week relieved some much-needed pressure and the return of Jonathan Vilma seemed to galvanize the team. Forget that they needed some fortunate turns against the Buccaneers — the Saints won, interim head coach Joe Vitt is back and they remain a very dangerous offense, clearly. At 2-4, they remain very much in an uphill climb heading into their Week Eight matchup with the Broncos in Denver. They still need to hear good news on TE Jimmy Graham’s ankle (although, who needs him? Drew Brees threw for 377 without that slug on the field) and can’t live this dangerously every week, and especially not in this one opposite Peyton Manning. Former interim interim head coach Aaron Kromer can now go back to spending more time with the offensive line, which is a good thing in a week they'll face party crashers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.
8. Enjoy long offensive plays? Good — Sunday night’s game is for you. These teams are ranked second (N.O.) and fourth (Den.) in the NFL in 20-plus-yard pass plays, and it’s no surprise with Brees, Manning and a few defenses that could stand to get better. Actually, the Broncos are not too bad in that department — they allow 4.78 yards per play (fourth in the NFL) and were lights out in the second half against the Chargers in Week Six. Still, Vegas isn’t buying the teams' defensive improvement; the over-under for this game opened at a whopping 55 points and could go up, depending on the action. There’ll be plenty of it during the game, too, likely through the air. But it will turn a little cooler in Denver than the 60- and 70-degree stuff they’ve been having early in the week.
9. The next four games are critical for both the Dolphins and Jets, who meet again Sunday. It’s becoming clear that the AFC is wide open, that the Bills are falling from the AFC East race and that the second-place team in the division has an excellent chance to finish with nine, 10 or 11 victories. That might be good enough for the postseason this year in a weak conference. The Jets lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Patriots, a game they should have won, just like the Week Three overtime Jets victory in Miami was a game the Dolphins probably should have taken. The Jets always seem prepared defensively but hot and cold offensively. The Dolphins are taking baby steps each week in all phases, having won two straight prior to the bye even with a flagging run game (86, 68 and 38 yards) in the past three contests. Are we in for an air show? The Dolphins are the NFL’s fourth-best run defense, but they are 28th against the pass and Mark Sanchez is coming off a 328-yard game. He and Ryan Tannehill could be dialing it up more than you think.
10. The Panthers are a mess offensively right now, and they are playing precisely the disciplined, veteran system that they don’t want to see right now. Sure, the Bears allowed Cam Newton to throw for 374 yards and rush for two TDs in Chicago last season, but he’s not playing as confidently and the team run game has disappeared this season. The Bears have the short week, but they are coming off a defensive performance against the Lions that shows just how good this group can be when all the assignments are carried out. The Panthers have fumbled 12 times and lost seven, tied for third most in the NFL; the Bears have forced 13 and recovered seven, tied for second most. Will Ron Rivera’s team keep tumbling in the city he played and coached in for nearly 15 years? We’ll find out early Sunday. If the Panthers fall behind, they could be in a lot of trouble.
11. Speaking of the Lions, they go from one style of tough defense to another. The Bears will zone you to death many games, as they did Monday night. The Seahawks love to press at the line and trust their corners in man coverage. Both are very good at what they do. With an extra three days’ rest following their Thursday loss to the 49ers, the Seahawks come to Detroit eager to get back on track. So do the Lions, who were beaten up by the Bears and have one day fewer than normal after the Monday-nighter. WR Nate Burleson is done for the year, so it means that former second-rounders Ryan Broyles (first NFL TD Monday) and Titus Young must step up aside Calvin Johnson against the vaunted Seahawks secondary. But for the road team to win, the offense must rediscover the deep passing game, which is where the Lions appear most vulnerable. Russell Wilson hopes it’s a better trip than the last time he was in the state of Michigan.
12. Earlier we mentioned the Saints-Broncos point total, which was sure to rise from 55. The only thing likely holding the Packers as 13-point favorites to start the week was a delay in the announcement of Maurice Jones-Drew’s foot injury and availability for Sunday’s game at Lambeau. QB Blaine Gabbert has a good chance of playing with his left (non-throwing) shoulder injury, but we’re debating whether that’s a good thing or not. The Packers’ secondary might be vulnerable with Charles Woodson out six weeks, but we’re also debating if that is a horrible thing. One way it might not be: Green Bay has handled adversity this season, blow by blow, about as well as any team could handle it. It’s only making them tougher, and following two straight road wins by double digits, this is still a great team. The Jaguars remain the NFL’s wayward out-of-work cousins. They have lost three straight and have almost zero chance of winning here Sunday.
13. It is in this space the past two years writing this feature I have dropped some cheeky British joke. Nope. Not doing it. The Patriots and Rams play in London. It’s Great Britain; get used to it. Although is London getting used to the NFL? Yes, a second game will be added, and it too will be a sellout, but the Brits still root more for punts than anything else (and John Fox thanks them for it). Tom Brady might be able to walk through Soho with his celebrity wife for some decent shopping without much fuss, but can he dissect the Rams’ defense the way Aaron Rodgers and the Packers did (but few others have) in Week Seven? Or better yet, can the Patriots reverse their ugly fourth-quarter trend? In the past three games since spanking the Bills, the Patriots have been outscored 34-6 in the final 15 minutes. The Rams have been great in their last three fourth quarters, outscoring the opponents 29-13. Look for the Patriots to really hammer the ball to the tight ends, backs and slot WR Wes Welker, as the Rams’ outside corners are top notch. The Rams’ version of Welker, Danny Amendola, is still a few weeks away from returning from a collarbone injury. They have moved the ball but struggled to finish drives lately.
14. The final game of the weekend — 49ers at Cardinals, Monday night — doesn’t look as good as it did a few weeks ago when the Cardinals were still undefeated (remember that?) and the Niners looked vulnerable. Now, San Fran will come in well recuperated with a 10-day layoff and have the chance to dismiss one division foe, as the Cardinals have dropped their past three games. But will we see any points in this game? Fantasy folks, take notice: The 49ers have combined to score 29 points against the tough defenses of the Vikings, Giants and Seahawks, and the Cardinals are the only team in the NFL yet to allow more than 21 in a game. It also isn’t much of a QB battle, either, with the backups (Colin Kaepernick for the Niners, Ryan Lindley for the Cardinals) perhaps holding more intrigue than the starters.
15. And we save the first game for last. The Buccaneers bring their suddenly high-flying passing game to Minnesota for a Thursday-nighter with the Vikings. Even with Josh Freeman and his receivers humming a bit, the Bucs have lost four of five since the opener. The Vikings have won four of five coming in, and they continue to ride RB Adrian Peterson, who finally is getting his requisite MVP consideration for his incredible comeback from ACL surgery. It's a good thing, too, because Christian Ponder has been struggling of late, and Vikings fans let him know with an indoor shower of boos in Week Seven. Although the Bucs have kept their two losses on the road close, each by one score, they have not won away from Tampa since Week Two of last season — when they beat the Vikings in the Metrodome.