One of my favorite things about the NFL is how the schedule always has one or two gems each week, with great variance across the conferences and divisions. This week, we’ve got a setup for a couple of potential classics at the top, with a meeting of the past two Super Bowl Champions and a Monday Night re-match of AFC South rivals. I’m finding this season difficult to get a handle on…as always, there are some unexpected challengers and disappointments, but who they are seems to change from week to week more frequently than any time in recent memory. I mean, a week ago it seemed like maybe the Vikings were ready to make a comeback move, but then Brett’s ankle got tackled by a Green Bay Packer (of all things), and we’re back to asking whether an increasingly frail camel can handle any further straws. Such is life in the League. Let’s look at this week’s tastiest matchups:
THE FOOTBALLSICKNESS GAME OF THE WEEK FOUR-PACK (We’re hoping for a Guinness sponsorship. The nectar of the Gods.)
PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: I know some of you are thinking, “Wait. Really? But the Saints have been flat, losing to teams like the Browns and Cardinals, both led by rookie quarterbacks. The Steelers, on the other hand, are 5-1 and being mentioned with the Jets as the best teams in the NFL after surviving Big Ben’s four game suspension to start the year using Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch to get it done. Surely the Steelers will roll, no? Actually…no. I don’t think so. First, my faith in the Saints’ offense isn’t really shaken. I think they’re due and bound to get it on track at home. The defense, though, seems to lack that magic it had last year, when it rode a tsunami of takeaways to a Sticky Lombardi. They’re coming much further apart now. But Gregg Williams is one of the better defensive minds in the NFL, and I will be surprised if he doesn’t have something for the Steelers. I expect the Saints to play well. If they play well at home, they should beat just about anybody, including the Steelers. The matchups I’ll be watching are (1) how the Saints, who have been struggling to run the ball effectively in the absence of Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, rush against a Steelers defense that lost Aaron Smith this weekend, and (2) how Gregg Williams and Roethlisberger work against each other when the Steelers have the ball. Should be a blast. SAINTS 24, STEELERS 23.
HOUSTON TEXANS AT INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: If Peyton Manning manages to lead this version of the Colts to the AFC South Division title again this season, it will be a freaking miracle, and #18 should be the unanimous MVP in such an event. Mark Schlereth said this week that he thinks the Colts are a 3-13 team without Manning, and while I thought that was stretching it, it’s sounding more and more reasonable as the Colts lose key players. The latest is Manning’s security blanket, tight end Dallas Clark, he of the 100-catch 2009 season. No matter how you slice it, that’s a problem. Especially when you need to score points to keep up with an outstanding Houston Texans offense. You remember them, don’t you, Indy? They ran you out of the building down in Houston on opening day on the strength of three Arian Foster touchdowns. And if they get this one in Lucas Oil Stadium, you will have been officially served. Which is precisely what I expect to happen. TEXANS 33, COLTS 27.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: The schedule is doing the Vikings no favors, this time handing them a trip to the land of the Chowds to face the Brady-Belichick Boys. We’ve said it before, but the Patriots can deliver the true kill shot here. This time, it all has to be too much for the Ol’ Gunslinger, don’t you think? I do. I consider myself capable of handling a pretty substantial amount of stress, and I cannot begin to imagine dealing simultaneously with all of Favre’s current issues. It’s obviously possible that he’s got one last magical run in him, and he’s overcome injuries that would have sidelined mere mortals on more than one occasion in the past…but I think the end has finally come. I’m not particularly moved by the “Randy Moss Returns to New England” angle- I never thought of him as a Patriot so much as a mercenary. He seems more at home back in Minnesota- it’s weird to see him assuming a leadership role so quickly. But that’s what happens when it’s not coming from other places. Chilly. PATRIOTS 27, VIKINGS 20.
GREEN BAY PACKERS AT NEW YORK JETS: This is a good test for the Jets coming off the bye, even though the Packers are a severely-wounded monster. But remember- the beast is most dangerous when injured and/or cornered, and the Pack are both, here. The Packers are coming off a good stabilizing victory over the rival Vikings, and have some momentum coming into New Jersey. But the effects of losing so many key players are starting to show more clearly on the field. The defense still has that trademark aggressiveness but it loses something playing with the depth guys. I anticipate the front seven having a tough time stopping the dominant run game of the Jets, who have a beautiful tag team in the backfield with Not-Dead-Yet-Vet LaDanian Tomlinson and young power stud Shonn Greene taking turns gashing opposing defenses. Can the Packers move the ball and score enough against the fantastic Jets’ D without Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant, among others? I doubt it. JETS 24, PACKERS 17.
THE CONTINENTAL SHELF SELECTION (There’s a pretty steep drop-off in game storyline quality at this point.)
MIAMI DOLPHINS AT CINCINNATI BENGALS: Still waiting for that Bengals team that swept the AFC North to show up. And even if they do, it’s already too late. The Dolphins got robbed last week and are going to run the ball like crazy against a Bengals defense that has been spotty against the run, to say the least. The Dolphins are a tougher team both physically and mentally, and I think they’ll continue the line of teams the Bengals probably think they should beat but consistently cannot. DOLPHINS 20, BENGALS 16.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS AT DALLAS COWBOYS: If the Cowboys don’t win this one, it is going to get UGLY. Like, Fishbone, no-alibi ugly. Fortunately, Jon Kitna is a capable veteran backup surrounded by young talent, including the obviously special Dez Bryant. They’ll finally get an easy one, and then some ridiculous Cowboy fan will inevitably suggest that Kitna should remain the QB when Romo returns. COWBOYS 31, JAGUARS 17.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS AT DETROIT LIONS: As recently as last year, this would’ve seemed like a circle win for the ‘Skins to go into Detroit and get a win. But, um…you remember how that worked out, right? The Lions are coming off a bye, I love the way the Schwartz gets his teams prepared, and Kong Suh is already dominating. These guys are coming, and I think they get a win this weekend over a Redskins team that had enough possessions to score 60 and managed only 17 against a bad Bears team. LIONS 24, REDSKINS 23.
BUFFALO BILLS AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: The Bills snuck up on the Ravens last week in Baltimore, which assures them of having no chance of doing so at Arrowhead this weekend. The Chiefs lost Dexter McCluster to the dreaded high ankle sprain this week, but they should still win this game comfortably at home. Big day for Tom Jones and Jamaal Charles. BIG. CHIEFS 30, BILLS 20.
CAROLINA PANTHERS AT ST. LOUIS RAMS: The Panthers got off the schneid last week against a pathetic Niners group. DeAngelo Williams is banged up, they miss Thomas Davis, and I’m not yet prepared to believe David Gettis is the world beater his new fantasy owners are no doubt hoping he is. The Rams are a much-improved team, and the bulk of the credit goes to Slingin’ Sam Bradford. (See? Recycled nicknames suck. Stop doing it!) Bradford has looked fantastic, and they lost a heartbreaker to the Bucs, so they’ll be ready to cleanse the palate with a victory. Add a little home cooking, and I’m feeling good about this one. RAMS 23, PANTHERS 17.
DENVER BRONCOS VS. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (LONDON, ENGLAND): I predict a one-word reaction from the UK audience upon witnessing “football” as played by these two teams in 2010: “BOLLOCKS.” They’re both bad teams and I will waste no further breath on them until one of them plays a complete football game. Pretty please. Just one. BRONCOS 26, NINERS 17.
TENNESSEE TITANS AT SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: This should be a fantastic game, but at this point I have zero faith in the Norv Turner-led Chargers to bother showing up for their scheduled games. I quote Raheem Morris: “Stats are for losers.” The Chargers, who rank among the league’s top statistical offenses and defenses, embody that statement. The Titans are the anti-Chargers, doing more with less, playing tough, physical football, and displaying the mental and intestinal fortitude to play through bad breaks and down streaks to find ways to win. As a result, the Titans are gunning for at least a playoff spot, while the Chargers, who must have this one to have any hope, are hanging by a thread. The Chargers have been soft and flat, and if this game were in Tennessee I’d be picking the Titans in a walk. But the Rule of Desperation applies here, and I think Philip Rivers leads a late drive to save the season…for now. Plus, hey, it’s November. This is when the Chargers’ season typically begins. CHARGERS 27, TITANS 24.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS AT OAKLAND RAIDERS: This one is a sneaky-good matchup. The Seahawks are playing outstanding defense and starting to gel on offense, largely on the strength of the Marshawn Lynch addition, the coming together of an offensive line that is new to each other, and the emergence of Big Mike Williams, who leads the NFL in targets in the two weeks since the ‘Hawks traded Deoin Branch to the Patriots. The Raiders just laid a whooping on the Broncos at Invesco, and now come home confident and ready to host one of the better teams in the NFC. The Raiders have a chance to get right back in the thick of things. This should be a good battle between two confident teams and it pits strength on strength, with the Raiders’ powerful running game and the Seahawks having one of the top run defenses in the league. I think the Raiders have more talent, but the Seahawks have been more consistent in 2010. Nevertheless, I’m leaning with the home team here coming off their best offensive performance in years. I think they’ll hold the momentum. But it should be a good one. RAIDERS 24, SEAHWAKS 23.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS AT ARIZONA CARDINALS: If Raheem Morris was even half serious they need to win this one in a walk. The Cardinals looked lethargic and overmatched last week in Seattle. How will they look against an upstart from the opposite corner of the country? I sense a downward spiral coming. BUCS 20, CARDINALS 16.
ON BYE WEEK 8: ATLANTA FALCONS, CHICAGO BEARS, CLEVELAND BROWNS, NEW YORK GIANTS, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES, BALTIMORE RAVENS