The Kansas City Chiefs are the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL after seven weeks of the regular season. In all probability, the Chiefs will continue their streak of success into Week 9 of the season, because they face the Cleveland Browns and backup quarterback Jason Campbell this weekend.
Even though the Chiefs are the hottest ticket in the NFL right now, it would be a stretch to suggest that there is a matchup in that game deserving of being one of the biggest this weekend. Maybe Ray Horton's aggressive defense overwhelms Alex Smith, but even if that happens, it would be a major surprise if Campbell could survive against the Kansas City defense on the other side of the ball.
Instead of focusing on the team with the best record in the league, this weekend is all about teams that are in contention for playoff spots.
The Cincinnati Bengals are coming off a close victory over the Detroit Lions and face the New York Jets this weekend. The Jets also enjoyed a close victory last weekend over the New England Patriots, and both teams are on course to be playoff contenders in the AFC.
After losing to the Jets, the Patriots enter Week 8 looking to rebound with a victory over the Miami Dolphins. After a 3-0 start, the Dolphins have fallen off the radar by losing their last three games. However, they have lost their last two games by a combined five points, so the Patriots can't expect an easy victory in Foxboro this weekend.
It's easy to forget that the Arizona Cardinals have won three games this season. Their terrible display on Thursday night against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7 should motivate them ahead of a decisive game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Both the Falcons and Cardinals desperately need to win this weekend. The Falcons are 2-4, while the Cardinals need to get back to .500 immediately if they are to survive in the NFC West.
It would be simple to list this matchup as A.J. Green versus Antonio Cromartie, because Cromartie is clearly the Jets' top cornerback. However, Cromartie can't contain Green alone, and how Rex Ryan sets up his game plan will be the decisive factor for this game.
Andy Dalton had one of his best games ever for the Bengals last week, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge the importance of Green's excellent play and the Lions' poor coaching on defense.
On the first drive of the game, the Lions jumped offside on third down before Dalton was able to find Green down the sideline for a huge touchdown. It was easy to see the offside on the defensive line, but the poor discipline from cornerback Chris Houston down the field only became clear later on.
The Bengals run a hard play action to the left side of the field before rolling Dalton out to the right. Green was lined up at the top of the screen and immediately begins running down the sideline. Houston plays the situation well initially. He doesn't bite on the play action, and his feet are back-pedaling without overplaying the deep threat either.
Green flips his hips toward the sideline as he approaches the first-down marker. This forces Houston to turn the wrong way and causes him to lose sight of Green for a moment. Green is an exceptionally fluid receiver, so he is able to take advantage of this mistake from Houston. As Houston throws his weight forward, Green is already pushing off his right foot and sprinting parallel to the sideline.
By the time Houston turns, Green has already created huge separation that the cornerback can't recover from. Dalton gives Houston an opportunity to recover, however, because he dramatically underthrows his pass to Green. Being that he is an elite wide receiver, it's no surprise that Green quickly recognises the underthrow, reacts and catches it before breaking Houston's attempted tackle and continuing downfield for the score.
Houston could have played this better, but he wasn't horrible in coverage. This is just what happens when cornerbacks are left alone with Green. He highlights any mistake the defender makes and takes advantage. Cromartie isn't having his best season, and even if he was, he couldn't be expected to cover Green on his own.
Green didn't finish last week's game with six receptions for 155 yards and a touchdown because he was left in single coverage. The Lions tried to stop him in different ways but failed to adjust properly to his presence. There was one play where Green was left in single coverage running down the seam with Stephen Tulloch, a linebacker, but the most notable play didn't feature a pass to Green.
On this play, the Lions initially show a Cover 2 look with both safeties deep. Green, circled in yellow, is lined up at the bottom of the screen with the defensive back lined up and showing off-coverage.
After the ball is snapped, both of the Lions safeties move toward the sideline, but the one on Green's side of the field runs straight to him. The Lions are double-teaming Green, but they fail to bring the other safety across to center field. That creates a huge gap right down the middle of the field for Jermaine Gresham to run into.
Gresham initially runs straight at Tulloch, which freezes him in space and keeps his feet pointed toward the line of scrimmage. Once he gets to the linebacker's face, he darts past his outside shoulder and runs down the middle of the field.
Tulloch is overmatched with this assignment. Gresham has a wide wingspan and the speed to get down the field. Dalton has an easy throw to make as he puts the ball on his tight end's outside shoulder for the big play.
Ryan and his Jets defensive staff must send extra coverage toward Green on Sunday, but they also have to be smart in how they do it. With Tyler Eifert, Gresham, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Giovani Bernard on the field, the Bengals have too many weapons for the Jets to rely on their pass rush and a double-team on Green to shut down Dalton.
Miami Dolphins Defensive Line Versus Tom Brady
Last week against the Jets, the Patriots offensive line allowed a huge amount of pressure on their quarterback. The Jets have a talented defensive line, but that doesn't excuse how porous the Patriots unit played.
Tom Brady was able to neutralise some of it with quick releases, but it had an adverse effect on the offense as a whole. He repeatedly missed receivers as he rushed throws or threw with a defender in his face.
While they can get to you from the outside as well, most of the Jets' pressure came up the middle, with Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson in particular standing out. This week's opponent, the Miami Dolphins, don't have the same interior talent as the Jets, but they do have enough quality spread through their front to pressure Brady consistently.
In particular, defensive end Cameron Wake needs to have a big game. He barely played against the Buffalo Bills last week, as he returned from missing time with an injury. The Bills also use a lot of misdirection and have a mobile quarterback who can slow down the pass rush. If fully healthy, Wake should have better success against the Patriots.
While the interior rush was more efficient and kept Brady out of his rhythm, it was the edge rush that led to the biggest play of the game.
On the final play of the first half and the first play of the second half, Brady was sacked in the pocket and fumbled the football. The Patriots recovered both fumbles, but the pressure from the edge played an important role in a turnover that came immediately after.
Facing a 1st-and-10, the Patriots come out with two wide receivers to the left, one to the right and Rob Gronkowski in a tight end position to the right. The Jets have two safeties deep and will ultimately play with those two safeties deep and man coverage underneath.
Gronkowski is running a crossing route and will come free. Brady understands that he has the matchup advantage with Gronkowski against Antonio Allen, but he is also mindful of the pressure coming from his blind side. At this point of the play, he is already drifting away from that pressure, but left tackle Nate Solder can't hold off his man.
Brady had the ball knocked out from behind on the last play, and the defensive end has his arm behind the quarterback's head again on this play. Brady is never comfortable, as he never turns his shoulders to throw the ball ahead of Gronkowski. The green arrow shows where the ball needed to go for Gronkowski to catch it, while the blue arrow is where the ball actually goes.
Not only does Brady miss Gronkowski, but Allen intercepts the pass and returns it for a touchdown. At the start of the third quarter, that proved to be a massive turning point in the game for the Jets. It all came from pressure.
If the Dolphins are to beat the Patriots, they need big plays and consistent pressure from their defensive line. Wake will be looked to, but Randy Starks, Olivier Vernon, Jared Odrick and Derrick Shelby will all need to contribute.
Arizona Cardinals Offensive Line Versus Atlanta Falcons Defensive Line
New head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim appeared to be turning the ship around in Arizona during the offseason. The defense was retooled to create more depth and versatility, while the offense addressed both the quarterback position and the offensive line. While the defense has performed well for the most part, the same problems on offense are holding back the Cardinals.
Carson Palmer hasn't played to the same level in Arizona that he played to with the Oakland Raiders, but he hasn't had much help either. Keim and Arians brought in Eric Winston and Jonathan Cooper this year to replenish the talent on their offensive line. Left guard Cooper, a high first-round pick, broke his leg before the season and has yet to see the field, while Winston has failed to meet expectations.
Winston, Cooper and Bobby Massie were expected to be the mainstays on a much-improved offensive line, but only Winston is actually seeing the field. Obviously nothing can be done about Cooper's absence, but critically, the Cardinals are choosing not to play Massie.
Massie can't feel overly aggrieved because his struggles were as prominent as his flashes during his rookie season, but he should feel like he is the team's best option to start at left tackle. Bradley Sowell is starting in his place, and he is the weakest link on a brittle chain of linemen. Against the Seattle Seahawks last week, his poor play was highlighted for the whole NFL audience to see.
Early on against the Seahawks, he was exposed on a Tony McDaniel sack.
As he did throughout the game, Sowell lines up as the left tackle. However, there is a tight end on his outside shoulder, and Larry Fitzgerald motions into a position that puts him behind the offensive line. This frees Sowell from containing the edge-rusher; instead, he must step inside to battle the defensive tackle, McDaniel.
Sowell takes a clean step inside but never sets his base, and McDaniel is able to quickly throw him to the ground before continuing into the pocket. At worst, Sowell should be slowing down the defensive tackle here, but he basically just made him swerve on his way to the quarterback.
It must be noted that the Seahawks' front seven is outlandishly talented with depth and potential pass-rushers littered throughout. The same cannot be said about this week's opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons pass rush has struggled this season. Despite the arrival of Osi Umenyiora to replace John Abraham, who is now playing for the Cardinals coincidentally, the defensive line has managed just 8.5 sacks on the season. Because Arizona has enough talent at tight end and wide receiver to exploit the Falcons secondary, it will need to get better production from its front to win this game.
While the Cardinals line lacks talent, Sowell's matchup with Umenyiora is the most likely avenue for pressure to come from.
Umenyiora developed his reputation as an edge-rusher for the New York Giants on multiple Super Bowl-winning teams. However, he has just four of his team's sacks this year, and he only beat a left tackle on one of those plays. Once he came free on a stunt, once he beat a tight end and once he was left completely free when the Falcons blitzed and Jets quarterback Geno Smith didn't recognise it.
Despite his recent form, he has the talent to overwhelm Sowell.
While Sowell was at fault for that McDaniel sack last week, he spent most of his day failing to handle Chris Clemons and Michael Bennett. Bennett and Clemons combined for two sacks and disrupted many more plays.
The Seahawks were able to create big plays, with Palmer fumbling the ball once and throwing two interceptions, primarily because of the pressure that Seattle put on the quarterback. Umenyiora has a reputation as someone who goes for the football instead of just settling for sacks. He has already forced two fumbles this year as part of the incredible 34 he has for his career.
With Steven Jackson just returning from injury, Roddy White's status unclear and Julio Jones out for the foreseeable future, this game should be much closer than originally anticipated. That means a turnover or two from the Falcons defense could prove decisive.