Week 9 is no slouch. Another week where roughly half the schedule is comprised of five-star games, including four divisional tilts that are full of playoff ramifications. As always, we’ll start with the best and work our way down.
Here’s a preview of Week 9:
Cowboys at Eagles: Another Sunday night spectacle for a glamour division. The Cowboys are making a move, but haven’t faced a divisional foe since losing at home to the Giants in Week 2. The Eagles share first place in the division with the Cowboys. The Giants are sliding and the Redskins are three games back. I’m not sure Dallas’ secondary matches up well with speedster DeSean Jackson, and Philly is hopeful of getting Brian Westbrook back. If the Eagles generate anything close to the pass rush they mustered against Eli Manning, it could be tough for the Cowboys to overcome on the road. Cornerbacks like Asante Samuel are adept at reading eyes and jumping routes, and we’ll see if Tony Romo continues protecting the ball as he has lately.
Ravens at Bengals: These two produced an epic in Week 5, with a last-second Carson Palmer drive beating the Ravens at home. Expect Baltimore to blitz him more this time around, and also establish the run game. Cedric Benson became the first back in three years to rush for over 100 yards against Baltimore in the first meeting, and he should be fresh off a bye. How will the Cincy pass rush hold up with Antwan Odom gone for the season? Can Benson keep up this pace? If the Bengals win here, they force Baltimore to chase them down the stretch. A win by the Ravens puts them even with Cincy and on Pittsburgh’s heels.
Texans at Colts: If the Texans are truly for real, this is the showcase game to prove it. Both teams are playing much improved defense lately, but with Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub on the field, the possibility of a shootout is always high. If either team can establish the run, it might tilt the game. The loss of Owen Daniels allows teams to focus more on Andre Johnson without worrying about as much underneath. If the Colts stay unbeaten here, you can just about hand them the AFC South title.
Steelers at Broncos: Pittsburgh comes in off a bye after regaining its form, while Denver tries to rebound from its first loss of the season. Baltimore showed you could out-physical the Broncos’ defense if need be, and I expect the Steelers to take that same approach. Broncos QB Kyle Orton has only lost twice at home in his career. Troy Polamalu should be ready after getting the extra week to nurse his ailing knee. Denver could look suddenly vulnerable, and coach Josh McDaniels is dealing with some in-season adversity for the first time.
Dolphins at Patriots: If any team can muster a divisional threat to New England, it’s Miami. This whole Wildcat craze got going at the Pats’ expense early last season. With the Bills at the bottom and the Jets in a free-fall, this is a game that could put Miami in position to be a playoff factor. The Dolphins should have beaten the Colts and Saints already. You can’t expect Ted Ginn to go bonkers in the return game, though, and Chad Henne hasn’t been as sharp now that there is more recent game film of him floating around. It’s hard not to like the Pats off a bye. Maybe it saps some of the offensive momentum they were mounting, though, I doubt it.
Chargers at Giants: Okay, no divisional ramifications here, but two teams that badly need a win. The Giants’ 5-0 start seems like ancient history, their secondary is pathetic at this point and the pass rush is not ferocious enough. Philip Rivers is the kind of guy who can exploit that struggling coverage, and target safety C.C. Brown in particular. The Giants badly need to get Chris Canty, Aaron Ross and Michael Boley on the field, immediately. Doubt the Chargers do much on the ground here, but this game could be won one-dimensionally given the state of New York’s pass coverage. San Diego’s defense is shaky as well, but you have to wonder if Eli’s foot and heel are bothering him, with balls sailing high and long on him.
Cardinals at Bears: Neither team has been capable of putting its best foot forward with great regularity. Nor has either been balanced on offense. Kurt Warner is coming off a five-interception outing, while Jay Cutler has turned it over far too much this season. It seems like the kind of game the Cards often lose. Larry Fitzgerald hasn’t quite been himself and Anquan Boldin is banged up, again. Another game where, if either team can play ball control and establish a run game, I give them the edge.
Panthers at Saints: This is a trap game to me. The Panthers have been bad, QB Jake Delhomme is beat up and Carolina is coming in off a win. If the Saints let their focus slip, this is a team that knows them well and could tear off some of the long outside runs that have occasionally given New Orleans trouble. But the Saints can beat you in many ways: With long drives, quick strikes or by scoring on defense. And Delhomme is more prone to handing the ball to the wrong team than pretty much anyone in the NFL.
Packers at Bucs: Will Tampa Bay go 0-16? Can the Packers put together a stretch of three or four solid performances to get going? You would expect the Bucs to attack Aaron Rodgers like crazy given Green Bay’s protection issues and with the Bucs having nothing to lose. It would also help to give Josh Freeman some short fields in his first NFL start.
Titans at 49ers: Vince Young was not too shabby in his ’09 debut, eh? The formula for the Titans is pretty simple, and the lack of the vertical element in the passing game is nothing new. Defenses have to respect his scrambling ability and running the ball is by far what the team does best anyway. Tennessee is not as bad as its record. In San Fran, the change at quarterback to Alex Smith might not be enough. I’ll call for Michael Crabtree to get his first NFL TD and for Vernon Davis to have a good game as well. Frank Gore vs. Chris Johnson gives us a matchup of the two best backs in the league at taking a carry 50 yards or more to the house.
Chiefs at Jaguars: This is a must-win game for the Jags if they are to remain on the periphery of the playoff scene. The Chiefs get their first taste of taking the field without Larry Johnson around, which will become the norm by 2010.
Redskins at Falcons: The Redskins might not win again this season. The schedule is tough and the malaise there is thick, especially with Chris Cooley gone for a while. This looks like a great opportunity for Atlanta to capitalize on the many mistakes Washington’s offense is prone to.
Lions at Seahawks: Both teams are struggling to be competitive. Detroit’s lone win since 2007 came at home and, even with an injury-depleted team on the field, Seattle is a tough place to play.