Only in the NFL: Best Head-to-Head Battles of Week 9
It's Week 9 of the 2013 NFL season, and for most teams that means the beginning of the season's second half.
The Kansas City Chiefs travel to Buffalo, where they will put their perfect record on the line against the Bills.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the other hand, will try to win their first game of the season...in Seattle against the Seahawks.
Good luck with that.
Much like last week, the six-team bye has robbed Week 9 of most of its shine where marquee matchups are concerned.
However, there's still bound to be plenty going on. Only in the NFL are there so many matchups within the matchups.
Kiko Alonso vs. Jamaal Charles
This week it falls to the Buffalo Bills to play David.
The wild thing is that the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that won two games last year, is playing the part of Goliath.
And yet there they are, the NFL's last undefeated team.
Without question, the focal point of the Kansas City offense is running back Jamaal Charles, who leads the AFC with 635 yards on the ground.
The recipe for beating the Chiefs appears simple: Shut down Charles, and make quarterback Alex Smith beat you throwing the ball downfield.
Of course, if it was so simple it would have happened already.
The Buffalo defense and rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso will try to keep Charles in check Sunday. Alonso has been a revelation for the Bills this year. His 81 tackles leads the team, and ranks second in the NFL. The former Oregon star has already emerged as a defensive leader in Buffalo.
However, while Alonso's raw stats look great, the youngster ranks a so-so 23rd among inside linebackers in Pro Football Focus' run stop percentage metric, which "shows the percentage of stops (a "loss" for the offense) per snap played only in run defense."
It's going to take a better game than that from Alonso for the Bills to stun Kansas City.
Dez Bryant vs. Minnesota Vikings Cornerbacks
We'll list the cornerbacks of the Minnesota Vikings as a group for this one.
It may take the entire group to cover Dallas Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant on any given play this week.
By now everyone has seen Bryant's sideline histrionics during last week's loss to the Detroit Lions.
The thing is, whenever a prominent wide receiver complains about not getting the ball, it's a pretty good bet that the following game said wide receiver is going to get said ball.
That should mean a lot of targets for Bryant against a Minnesota secondary that has been mostly terrible this year.
Through seven games, the Vikings rank 29th in pass defense. Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes (74th), Chris Cook (87th) and Josh Robinson (106th) all rank well outside the top 50 at their position according to Pro Football Focus.
If the Vikings are going to have any chance of pulling the upset, that defensive backfield is going to have to play their best game of the season.
Michael Roos vs. Robert Quinn
The Week 9 matchup between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans won't get much in the way of national publicity, but there are some interesting subplots in the game.
For the Titans, Week 9 represents an opportunity to get back to .500 and keep their playoff aspirations alive.
It's also a chance for quarterback Jake Locker to get his 2013 season back on track.
Locker and the Titans played well to open the season. The third-year pro threw six touchdown passes without an interception over the first four weeks of the year, but after a leg injury knocked Locker from the lineup the Titans struggled.
However, Locker and the Tennessee offensive line will have their hands full with a St. Louis pass rush that gave Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks fits in Week 8.
Left tackle Michael Roos, in particular, has a tough road ahead of him.
To Roos will fall the job of blocking defensive end Robert Quinn. The 23-year-old is enjoying a phenomenal third season in the NFL, with 10 sacks over his first eight games.
Roos has been a solid lineman this year, but only so-so in pass protection, ranking outside the top 30 in that regard per Pro Football Focus.
If Roos can keep Locker clean, the Titans should be able to move the ball against a St. Louis defense that has struggled at times.
If the Rams harass Locker like they did Russell Wilson, however, then the game will take on a tone that benefits the Rams.
Maybe this time the Rams can convert that into a win.
Osi Umenyiora vs. Cam Newton
Don't look now, but for the first time since 2008, the Carolina Panthers are over .500.
The Panthers have reeled off three straight wins, scoring over 30 points in each of those contests.
That offensive surge is largely the doing of quarterback Cam Newton. Over the past three games, Newton has accounted for eight touchdowns without turning the ball over. The third-year pro has posted a passer rating of over 110 in each of those games.
This week the resurgent Panthers battle the reeling Falcons. If the Falcons are to have a shot in this game, they have to get pressure on Newton.
It won't be easy. The Falcons rank 22nd in the NFL in sacks, and their defense has been beset by injuries.
By far Atlanta's best pass-rusher is Osi Umenyiora, who leads the team with four sacks after joining the Falcons in free agency.
As talented as Newton may be, he's also prone to making mistakes when pressured.
The Falcons need that pressure and those mistakes if they're going to pull off the upset.
Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson vs. Drew Brees
Much like the last slide, this matchup isn't head-to-head, per se.
However, the ability of New York Jets defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson to get after New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a huge factor in whether or not Gang Green has a shot in Week 9.
Make no mistake, if Brees has time to throw, he'll carve the Jets up just like he does just about everyone else.
Blitzing is a dicey proposition too. The Jets rank 15th in the NFL in pass defense, and leaving their cornerbacks in man coverage against New Orleans is a risky bet.
However, if Wilkerson and Richardson can get after it, that would afford Rex Ryan the luxury of zone coverages against the Saints.
The Jets have had some success this year in that regard. the Jets rank fifth in the NFL with 25 sacks so far this season. Wilkerson and Richardson have accounted for 9.5 of those sacks.
Wilkerson has been especially dominant this year. The third-year pro has seven sacks in 2013, and for the second straight year Wilkerson ranks inside the top-five at his position according to Pro Football Focus.
The Saints, meanwhile, have been a below-average unit in pass protection, ranking 18th in the NFL according to Football Outsiders.
If the Jets are going to get back above .500, they have to win the battle up front.
Troy Polamalu vs. Rob Gronkowski
Before the season began, Sunday's matchup between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers looked to be one of the biggest games of Week 9.
The Patriots have held up their end of the deal. It hasn't been pretty, but the Patriots are 6-2 and sitting atop the AFC East.
Things haven't gone as well for the Steelers, who are mired in last place in the AFC North after falling 21-18 to the Oakland Raiders last week.
However, as badly as the Steelers have played for much of this season, the team still has a real shot at knocking off New England.
As good as their record is, the Patriots have more than a few problems.
A Patriots offense that was the best in the NFL last year currently sits 18th. New England has fared even worse through the air, ranking 23rd at 209.4 yards per game.
With the Pats scuffling offensively, the return of star tight end Rob Gronkowski was no doubt a welcome sight for Tom Brady.
You can bet the rent that Brady will target Gronk early and often Sunday. Stopping the duo from getting into a rhythm is paramount for Pittsburgh.
Luckily for the Steelers, they have Troy Polamalu.
Granted, the 32-year-old may not be the player he once was, but Polamalu remains a top-five safety in coverage this year according to Pro Football Focus.
If Polamalu can hold his own, and the Patriots have trouble getting rolling offensively, then that's a big step towards the Steelers spreading their 2013 misery a bit.
J.J. Watt vs. Gosder Cherilus
There's a shakeup afoot in the AFC South.
The Houston Texans, who won the division each of the past two years, are 2-5 after a disastrous start to the season.
The Indianapolis Colts, on the other hand, have the most impressive resume of any team in the NFL this year.
The 7-1 Seahawks? That "1" is the Colts. Same goes for the 7-1 Broncos.
The Texans roll into this game heavy underdogs. Case Keenum has replaced Matt Schaub at quarterback. Running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate may not be able to play.
It's going to take a flawless effort from the Texans who are playing to pull off the upset, and that begins and ends with defensive end J.J. Watt.
The 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year hasn't put up the gaudy numbers he did a year ago, but Watt is still the NFL's top 3-4 end per Pro Football Focus.
The job of stopping Watt from stomping on quarterback Andrew Luck will fall to Gosder Cherilus, who joined the Colts in free agency.
Cherilus has been a solid addition in Indy, grading positively against both the run and the pass. Throw in the help that Cherilus will certainly get up front, and it's going to be an uphill battle for Watt to light it up on Sunday night.
Charles Tillman vs. Jordy Nelson
For the Chicago Bears in 2013, it's deja vu all over again.
For the second straight season, a promising start to the year is in serious jeopardy due to injuries.
Linebacker Lance Briggs is expected to be out at least a month with a fractured shoulder. Quarterback Jay Cutler is out indefinitely with a torn groin muscle.
These are not the sorts of things one wants to hear heading into a matchup with the Green Bay Packers.
At least the Bears will have All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman, who has battled numerous nagging injuries this year, back in the fold.
The Packers have been battling injuries of their own. Top wideout Randall Cobb is on short-term injured reserve. Tight end Jermichael Finley may well miss the rest of the year after suffering a scary neck injury against the Cleveland Browns. James Jones has missed the last two games with a knee injury.
That leaves sixth-year veteran Jordy Nelson, who had seven grabs for 123 yards and two scores in last week's win over the Minnesota Vikings, as Aaron Rodgers' top target in the Green Bay passing game.
The Bears usually match Tillman (when healthy) up with the opponent's top receiver.
This week that means Nelson, and it's a battle worth watching on Monday night.