Only in the NFL: Best Head-to-Head Battles of Week 10
The calendar has turned to November, and with that the second half of the 2013 NFL season is underway.
The NFL's lone undefeated team, the Kansas City Chiefs, will be taking Week 10 off.
However, there are a couple of big games, highlighted by Sunday night's showdown between the Cowboys and Saints in New Orleans.
The scoreboard may be the final arbiter, but only in the NFL will that game, and every one this week, be decided by the combination of hundreds of individual battles, be it down the field or in the trenches.
Here's a look at some of the biggest this week.
Charles Tillman vs. Calvin Johnson
There's an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt.
In the case of Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, it breeds respect.
Tillman, who has spent more than a few Sunday afternoons trying to slow down Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, had nothing but good things to say about "Megatron" back in September, according to Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News:
He's so damn big. He's like the LeBron James of wide receivers.
He's like that Madden character that you can create in the game. He's tall, he's fast, he can catch. He's got quickness, he's got the speed, he's got the agility, the leaping ability, the extra boost. He's 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10.
The pair will match up again on Sunday in one of Week 9's bigger games.
This was already a crucial NFC North showdown, but now, after the Bears downed the Green Bay Packers in Week 9, it becomes critical.
Not only do the Bears need a win to maintain a share of first place, but a loss to the Lions would give Detroit the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams.
Given that the last time we saw Johnson he racked up 329 receiving yards it would be easy to say he has the upper hand, but Tillman has generally held his own against the NFL's best receiver in the past.
Last year, while Johnson was on his way to the most yardage ever by a wide receiver, he managed just eight catches for 106 yards in two meetings with Tillman and the Bears.
James Anderson vs. Reggie Bush
Johnson isn't the only problem the Bears have in Week 10.
A Chicago defense that was once feared is now being gashed with regularity on the ground. After ranking eighth in the NFL in run defense last year, the Bears have slipped to 24th in 2013, at 127.5 yards per game.
Six days after surrendering 150 rushing yards to bruiser Eddie Lacy, the Bears have to deal with a much different type of back in Reggie Bush of the Lions.
The eight-year veteran has been consistently effective as both a runner and receiver this season, averaging over 120 total yards a game in his first season in Detroit.
Meanwhile, James Anderson is also being counted on as a key contributor for his new team. Injuries have decimated the Chicago defense, and Anderson is the lone remaining veteran presence among a group of starting linebackers that now includes two rookies.
Anderson and the Bears are going to need a much better effort against Bush than the first time these teams met.
Back in Week 4, Bush racked up 139 yards on 18 carries in a Detroit win over the Bears, scoring a touchdown on a 37-yard scamper.
Eddie Lacy vs. Philadelphia Eagles Defense
We'll list the Philadelphia Eagles' defense as a group in this one, because it's going to take all 11 of them to stop Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy in Week 10.
The Green Bay receiving corps has been pretty banged up in 2013, but during that carnival of carnage among their pass-catchers, the Packers discovered something: That rookie running back they drafted is pretty good.
Rookie Eddie Lacy has carried the ball over 20 times in each of the past five games, picking up 545 yards and scoring three touchdowns over that stretch.
Lacy's coming off a career-high 150 yards against the Chicago Bears, and with Aaron Rodgers out indefinitely with a fractured collarbone Lacy is sure to be in for a heavy workload at Lambeau Field.
Stopping the youngster will be a priority for the Eagles' 15th-ranked run defense, as well a key to Philadelphia getting back into the chase in the NFC East.
Anthony Castanzo vs. Robert Quinn
The Houston Texans gave the Indianapolis Colts quite a scare last Sunday night, but a furious second-half comeback led by quarterback Andrew Luck got the Colts to 6-2 on the season.
It's likely Luck was furious too. The second-year pro took a pounding against the Texans, with defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith combining for three sacks and seven QB hits.
It won't get any easier for the Colts this week, as they face a St. Louis Rams team that possesses a pair of talented young bookends on defense in Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
Quinn has been especially effective this year. The third-year pro has amassed 10 sacks over his first nine games in 2013, and Quinn is Pro Football Focus' top-ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013 by a significant margin.
Unfortunately, the safe can't be said about left tackle Anthony Castonzo. The 25-year-old grades as a top-20 offensive tackle overall at PFF, but the third-year pro ranks outside the top 30 in pass protection.
The Rams have stayed in a lot of games this year as a result of their front four, including nearly upsetting the Seattle Seahawks two weeks ago.
Head coach Jeff Fisher will need a similarly stout effort from Quinn, Long and the Rams defense if St. Louis is going to pull off the upset.
A.J. Green vs. Lardarius Webb
Defending their Super Bowl title hasn't come easy for the Baltimore Ravens.
After falling to the Cleveland Browns last week, the Ravens sit at 3-5, in third place in the AFC North and 2.5 games behind the Cincinnati Bengals.
That gap makes this week's home tilt with the Bengals an absolute must-win if the Ravens are going to get back to the playoffs, and the key defensively is simple.
Contain wide receiver A.J. Green.
Green not only leads the NFL with 862 receiving yards, but no wideout in the NFL has been targeted more. The third-year pro has been thrown at 100 times, an average of over 11 targets per game.
In Week 10 it falls to Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb to try to keep Green from catching those targets.
Webb has struggled in his return from an ACL injury last year. According to Pro Football Focus, the fifth-year pro ranks 89th at his position in pass coverage among cornerbacks in 2013.
Those struggles hit bottom last week, when Webb was embarrassed by Cleveland wideout Davone Bess on a juke move that resulted in a score.
If Webb plays like that against the Bengals, the Ravens have no chance.
Cam Newton vs. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman
There isn't a hotter team in the NFC right now than the Carolina Panthers.
The surging Panthers have won four games in a row, averaging a robust 32.5 points per game over that stretch.
Quarterback Cam Newton's play over the past month has been nothing short of superb. Over the past four games, the third-year pro has averaged over 250 yards of total offense per game, with 10 touchdowns against only three turnovers.
However, that winning streak has come against teams with a combined record of 6-27. This week, a San Francisco 49ers team is on the slate that has that many wins all by themselves.
The 49ers have one of the NFL's most formidable defenses, led by the league's best cadre of linebackers.
The top dog among those linebackers is seventh-year veteran Patrick Willis, and either he or batterymate NaVorro Bowman will probably be asked to "spy" on Newton Sunday.
Both players rank among the top 10 inside linebackers in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, and it's going to be much harder for Newton to wreak havoc outside the pocket this week than usual.
Denver Broncos Wide Receivers vs. San Diego Chargers Cornerbacks
This battle is a tale of positional units of two teams. One is playing as well as any in the NFL. The other? Not so much.
The Denver Broncos are 7-1, in large part due to a stable of wideouts as deep and talented as there is in the NFL. Whether it's Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker or Eric Decker, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.
Unfortunately for the San Diego Chargers, their cornerbacks have mostly just been embarrassing.
As Matt Calkins of U-T San Diego reports, free-agent acquisition Derek Cox was benched in last week's loss to Washington. San Diego's top four corners all rank in the bottom 20 in the NFL at their position in pass coverage at Pro Football Focus.
Simply put, the Chargers secondary will have to play out of their minds to avoid getting carved up like roast beef at Arby's this week.
DeMarco Murray vs. Curtis Lofton
Without question, the biggest storyline heading into Sunday night's matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints will be the battle of quarterbacks. Tony Romo vs. Drew Brees.
Such is life in the NFL. Passers get all the glory.
However, that isn't the battle that will determine who wins this game.
The New York Jets gave a blueprint for how to beat the Saints last week, and a large part of that plan is cramming the ball down the Saints' throats.
Not only have linebacker Curtis Lofton and the Saints struggled stopping the run of late, but Brees can't play pinball with the pigskin if the Saints don't have the ball.
Chris Ivory gashed the Saints for 139 yards last week. A similar effort from Dallas running back DeMarco Murray would go a long way toward getting the Cowboys a win in Week 10.
Murray has been effective this season when on the field, averaging almost five yards a carry. However, the third-year pro has missed two of the last three games with a knee injury, and Murray hasn't topped 100 yards on the ground since Week 3.
If the Cowboys try to win a shootout with the Saints, they're cooked. The path to victory this week lies on the ground.
Tyson Clabo and Nate Garner vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Line
What the hell is going on in Florida?
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't won a game yet. The locker room in Tampa was rocked earlier by a MRSA outbreak.
The madness has now spread to Miami. Forty percent of the Miami offensive line is MIA, with Jonathan Martin receiving counseling and Richie Incognito suspended indefinitely amid a bullying scandal that has engulfed the team.
Nate Garner will step in for Incognito, while the previously benched Tyson Clabo is back in the lineup at right tackle in Martin's stead.
Amid the chaos there's a game to be played, with the Dolphins traveling to Tampa to face the Buccaneers.
The Dolphins showed in last week's win over Cincinnati that they're a much better team when Lamar Miller and the running game gets going.
Given that defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and the Buccaneers have allowed nearly 108 yards per game on the ground that appeared doable before, but the Dolphins' offensive front just became a potentially glaring weakness.
It's not just a matter of the run game, either. Pass protection remains a huge question mark.
For as bad as Martin was in 2013 against the pass, Clabo has somehow been worse. The ninth-year veteran has allowed eight sacks so far this year. Only Cleveland turnstile Mitchell Schwartz has surrendered more.
Letting Jake Long, who ranks second among all offensive tackles this year, according to Pro Football Focus, walk in free agency last spring looks more and more like another terrible decision by Miami general manager Jeff Ireland.