Only in the NFL: Best Head-to-Head Battles of Week 8
With six teams on a bye in Week 8, there isn't much in the way of big matchups on the NFL slate.
In fact, there isn't a single game featuring two first-place teams.
However, that hardly means there's nothing to watch. Only in the NFL could a seemingly down week provide such entertainment.
There are any number of interesting games in Week 8, featuring more than a few compelling individual battles.
Here are some of the biggest.
Cameron Wake vs. Sebastian Vollmer
Fresh off a stinging loss to the New York Jets, the New England Patriots host the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
For the second time in three games, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass. His completion percentage ranks outside the top 30 in the NFL this year.
Much has been made of injuries to receivers and drops, but the pass protection hasn't been good either. Brady has been sacked 13 times in the last three games.
if the Patriots are going to hand the Dolphins their fourth straight loss, it's up to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to keep star defensive end Cameron Wake off the Golden Boy.
Last year's meeting at Foxboro went to Vollmer, but Wake had 1.5 sacks against the Patriots when they met in Miami last December.
A.J. Green vs. Antonio Cromartie
One of Week 8's more intriguing games takes place in Cincinnati, where the 5-2 Bengals will host the 4-3 New York Jets.
For the Jets, the honor of becoming the latest cornerback to cover star wideout A.J. Green will fall to Antonio Cromartie.
Unfortunately for Cromartie and the Jets, that's not something he's done well recently.
Cromartie ranks dead last among all NFL cornerbacks in coverage this season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating above 103 when throwing at the eighth-year pro.
There's no doubt that Green will be targeted. No receiver in the NFL has been thrown at more in 2013 than the third-year pro.
If the Jets are going to get the win on the road, Cromartie needs to turn back the clock. The 29-year-old was a top-five coverage corner in 2012, according to PFF, and the Jets can't let Green run amok like he did in Cincinnati's Week 7 victory over Detroit.
Geno Atkins vs. New York Jets' Offensive Guards
Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions may get all the headlines, but it's Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals who has emerged as the NFL's best defensive tackle over the past year.
The 25-year-old is off to something of a slow start in 2013, but Atkins still has 16.5 sacks over his last 23 games, including four this year.
The Bengals move their defensive linemen around quite a bit. New York Jets guards Brian Winters and Willie Colon will both probably be matched up on Atkins at some point this week.
It's going to be a tall order. Neither player ranks inside the top 40 at their positions this year, according to Pro Football Focus. Colon has yet to allow a sack this season, but Winters has surrendered three.
Atkins is only part of a very talented Cincinnati defensive line. How the Jets, who have allowed the fifth-most sacks in the NFL this season, fare at protecting quarterback Geno Smith will determine how much of a chance the team has of upsetting the AFC North leaders in Cincinnati.
Sean Lee vs. Reggie Bush
Sunday's showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions features two players performing at the very top of their positions.
Running back Reggie Bush is playing as well as he has at any point in his eight-year career, averaging well more than 100 total yards a game for the Lions.
Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee has been on a tear. The fourth-year pro has an eye-popping 55 tackles over his past four games.
Lee ranks second among all inside linebackers this year, according to Pro Football Focus, while Bush places 13th among running backs.
It's really quite simple. In the three games this year where Reggie Bush has topped 100 total yards, the Lions are 3-0.
In the three where he's been held below 100, Detroit is 0-3.
Dez Bryant vs. Chris Houston/Darius Slay
Sunday's tilt between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions should feature plenty of traumatized cornerbacks.
Not only will Brandon Carr of the Cowboys be tasked with slowing down Calvin Johnson, but the Lions will have to contend with Dallas wideout Dez Bryant.
It isn't going to be easy. The Detroit secondary is a mess.
As Kyle Meinke of MLive.com reports, cornerback Chris Houston was benched last week after repeatedly being beaten in coverage by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Houston got back in the game after Rashean Mathis went down, but it's unclear if he'll be in the starting lineup against the Cowboys.
If Houston is still in the doghouse, then rookie Darius Slay, who lost his starting job to Mathis earlier this season, will get the nod.
Both players will have their hands full with the larger, more physical Bryant in a game that could easily be headed for a shootout.
Terrelle Pryor vs. Troy Polamalu
After a terrible start to the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have peeled off two straight wins and will be looking to make it three in a row in the Black Hole against the Raiders.
It hasn't really shown in its 2-4 record, but Oakland has been a tough out in 2013, thanks in large part to the surprisingly effective play of quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor has completed more than 64 percent of his passes, and the third-year pro has run for nearly 300 yards.
One of the biggest keys to limiting Pryor is to contain his scrambling ability, and that's often accomplished by assigning a "spy."
A likely candidate for the Steelers is veteran strong safety Troy Polamalu.
The 11th-year veteran certainly is no stranger to playing near the line of scrimmage, and while Polamalu may have lost a step he's still capable of both running with and bringing down Pryor.
Pittsburgh is always a tough team to run on. If the Steelers can shut down running back Darren McFadden and limit Pryor's ability to do damage with his legs, then Pittsburgh will have an excellent chance at a third straight victory.
Darren Sproles vs. Kiko Alonso
He wasn't the most highly touted defensive rookie this year, but Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Kiko Alonso has been the most productive one.
Through seven games, the former Oregon star ranks third in the NFL with 70 tackles. He's tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions.
This week will provide one of Alonso's stiffest tests this season.
The Bills will be in the Big Easy this week, going up against a New Orleans Saints team that could be without their biggest offensive weapon.
Regardless of whether Graham plays, Alonso will likely spend much of the night tracking down versatile running back Darren Sproles, whether it's on a run play or in coverage.
It's the latter category that Alonso has been especially effective at. In addition to the four picks, Alonso ranks second among all inside linebackers in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Should Graham be sidelined, Sproles would become an even bigger part of the offense. Bottling him up may represent the best chance Alonso and the Bills have of pulling the upset in Week 8.
Jamaal Charles vs. Craig Robertson
The Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL's last undefeated team.
The NFL's best defense this year has had a lot to do with that winning streak, but so does the tough running and pass-catching of running back Jamaal Charles.
Charles ranks third in the NFL with 561 rushing yards. The 26-year-old has also pitched in 337 receiving yards and eight total scores.
Charles is the engine that makes the Kansas City offense go. If the Cleveland Browns are to have any hope of knocking the Chiefs off this week, the Browns have to slow down Charles.
That will be the chore of the Cleveland linebacker corps. Its leader may be D'Qwell Jackson, but its best run defender this year has been second-year man Craig Robertson.
Robertson has graded much higher than Jackson against the run this year, per PFF. Granted, Robertson's 26th-place ranking isn't great, but it's better than Jackson's (47th).
The key to stopping the Chiefs is stopping the run. The Browns have enjoyed some success in that regard this year, ranking ninth in the NFL at 99 yards per game.
If they have any chance of pulling off the upset, it will take a similarly stout performance from Robertson and the Cleveland run defense.
Tony Gonzalez vs. Daryl Washington
The Atlanta Falcons got a desperately needed win last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Falcons will try to keep their fading playoff hopes alive in the desert this week against the Arizona Cardinals.
The Falcons have been ravaged by injuries. Running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Roddy White have been out a significant part of the year. Fellow wideout Julio Jones had his season ended by an injured foot.
Those injuries have stolen the thunder of Tony Gonzalez's swan-song season, a year that was supposed to end with the Super Bowl appearance the tight end has chased for more than 15 years.
It's also put more pressure on Gonzalez to support the passing game. Gonzalez wasn't really a factor in the win over Tampa, but the extra attention he drew from the defense helped set up a big day for wide receiver Harry Douglas.
The Cardinals have something of an ace in the hole where covering Gonzo is concerned: linebacker Daryl Washington.
Washington is big enough at 238 pounds to "body up" Gonzalez, and fast enough in space to not get embarrassed in coverage.
The fourth-year veteran will all but surely get help from a safety over the middle. If the Cardinals can bracket Gonzalez and lock down cornerback Patrick Peterson on Douglas, then Matt Ryan could have real issues moving the ball through the air in Week 8.
A.J. Hawk vs. Adrian Peterson
After an early-season skid the Green Bay Packers have righted the ship, winning three in a row.
The Vikings, on the other hand, ran the ship right into the rocks in a terrible Monday night loss to the winless New York Giants.
The two NFC North rivals meet in this week's Sunday night affair. When they last met, the Packers defeated the Vikings in the Wild Card Round of last year's playoffs.
Since then, much has changed.
The Vikings have changed quarterbacks twice. Wide receiver Greg Jennings has switched teams, joining the Vikings in free agency.
However, one thing hasn't changed. The road to beating the Vikings begins and ends with stopping running back Adrian Peterson.
This week that task will fall to a Green Bay linebacker group that has been decimated by injuries.
Of Green Bay's starters in Week 1, only A.J. Hawk remains on the field.
Hawk hasn't fared especially well, either this year against the run or against Peterson in the past.
The eighth-year veteran ranks 34th among inside linebackers in run defense, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and the last time these teams met in Minnesota, Peterson gained 199 yards on the ground.