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Every NFL Team's Biggest Key to Victory in Week 10

Russell S. BaxterContributor IOctober 7, 2016

Every NFL Team's Biggest Key to Victory in Week 10

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    Quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos return to action this week.
    Quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos return to action this week.Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    This may shape up as a very intriguing slate of games as the National Football League hits the double-digit mark in terms of weeks.

    There’s a great clash between two of the hottest teams in the NFC, a battle of green in Green Bay and a playoff rematch from 2012 that doesn’t figure to have an encore this January.

    Welcome to NFL 2013, Week 10. And here’s a look at each team’s best chance to come away with a win this Sunday and Monday.

    As we do every week, we will take a look back to Thursday night and how the Minnesota Vikings rallied to defeat the Washington Redskins.

    We will also take a look back at the seasons for the four teams not playing this week, two of those division leaders in the AFC and all but one of the four with a winning record.

Minnesota Vikings 34, Washington Redskins 27

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    The Minnesota Vikings finally got win No. 2 this season. And if the final score had a familiar ring to it, you aren’t imagining things.

    Leslie Frazier’s club came away with a 34-27 win on Thursday night over the Washington Redskins. The last time we saw the Vikings emerge with a victory in 2013 was back in Week 4 at London.

    Vikings 34, Steelers 27.

    Of course, the only repeat we thought we might see was yet another loss for the disappointing Vikings. Frazier’s team trailed 27-14 in the third quarter before Minnesota closed out the game with 20 straight points.

    For the Redskins, this one might sting for a little while. “It hurts,” said Griffin via Mark Maske courtesy of The Washington Post. “This loss definitely hurts. But we’ve got to pick it back up.”

    Then again, Mike Shanahan’s team was 3-6 at this point last season before running the table and capturing the NFC East for the first time since 1999.

    Stranger things have happened…obviously.

Cleveland Browns (4-5) and Kansas City Chiefs (9-0): Off

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Cleveland Browns (4-5)

    It has certainly been a season of ups and downs for the Cleveland Browns.

    Another new head coach and set of coordinators. Second-year running back Trent Richardson dealt to the Indianapolis Colts. And there have been three different starting quarterbacks in 2013.

    And yet, a team that has lost at least 11 games five straight seasons suddenly finds itself in second place in the traditionally rugged AFC North.

    The Browns are not only one win away from matching last season’s victory total, they are within earshot of the top spot of the division. The team already has wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, the latter coming last Sunday.

    Quarterback Jason Campbell is at the helm these days and last week wound up throwing three touchdown passes in a 24-18 win over the Ravens, snapping an 11-game losing streak in the series.

    With one of the top defenses in the league and a veteran presence behind center, Rob Chudzinski’s team may be a team worth watching the final two months of 2013.

     

    Kansas City Chiefs (9-0)

    For now, the Kansas City Chiefs can do no more.

    Talk about earning some time off? One year after tying for the worst record in the NFL and with a combined nine wins the previous two seasons combined (9-23), the AFC West leaders are a perfect 9-0 in 2013.

    Well, maybe not perfect. But give credit where it’s due rather than the skepticism brought by some.

    The Chiefs are getting it done this season with plenty of defense and just enough offense. Andy Reid’s club has held all nine opponents to 17 points or less.

    A Kansas City squad that finished tied for last in the NFL in turnover differential (minus-24) a year ago now leads the league in the same category (plus-15). The Chiefs have forced an NFL-best 23 turnovers, totaling 10 more takeaways than all of last season (13).

    Most importantly, there’s that 9-0 record. And that perfect mark will be severely tested next Sunday when Reid and company head to Denver to face quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos. It will mark the first of five divisional games remaining on the Chiefs’ schedule in 2013.

New England Patriots (7-2) and New York Jets (5-4): Off

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    Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

    New England Patriots (7-2)

    Perhaps the New England Patriots are determined to reach that 500-point mark for an unprecedented fourth straight season?

    I don’t think so.

    It’s hard to believe that Bill Belichick’s team is capable of totaling 266 points in its final seven outings of 2013. Of course, it’s not hard to believe that the Patriots are once again the front-runners in the AFC East. And that’s with Tom Brady not really looking like Tom Brady…yet.

    Last Sunday’s 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers aside, only the second time in nine games that Bill Belichick’s team reached the 30-point mark, these are not the explosive Pats of recent vintage. What they are is a balanced offense being complemented by a bend-but-don’t break defense for the most part.

    And they’re also a team two wins away from a 13th straight winning season.

    Let that sink in for a minute.

     

    New York Jets (5-4)

    If all goes according to form in 2013, the New York Jets will be an improved football team with an 8-8 record.

    Of course, head coach Rex Ryan likes the sound of improvement. But we’re sure that he could do without that .500 record.

    Unfortunately, the team has alternated wins and losses since the start of the season. There have been some maddening losses to the Tennessee Titans (38-13) and Cincinnati Bengals (49-9). There have also been impressive victories over the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.

    Rookie quarterback Geno Smith has been a work in progress. But that Jets defense ranks seventh in the league in yards allowed per game and first in rushing defense.

    And a 5-4 mark isn’t bad for a club that finished 6-10 last season.

Buffalo Bills (3-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-6)

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    Buffalo Bills
    Key to Victory: Defense the short passing game

    It may surprise some people to know that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 61 receptions.

    But for Buffalo Bills rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso and his defensive cohorts, keeping tight end Heath Miller under wraps may be a bigger priority.

    Alonso is having a stellar debut campaign and is currently tied for the league lead with four interceptions. But that doesn’t mean that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won’t test the productive rookie defender.

    And a few passes to running back Le'Veon Bell may be in Pittsburgh’s game plan as well.

     

    Pittsburgh Steelers
    Key to Victory: Stop the run

    Dating back to 2004 and Dick LeBeau’s second tour of duty as the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator, stopping the run has always been a priority for the talented coach.

    Over the previous nine seasons, the Steelers have been no worse than eighth in the NFL in rushing defense. In eight of those seasons, they were ranked in the top three.

    In 2013, only the Jacksonville Jaguars are giving up more yards per game on the ground than the Steelers. Consider that LeBeau’s unit has already given up 1,050 yards rushing in eight games, a whopping 131.3 yards per game. In 16 contests a year ago, Pittsburgh allowed a total of 1,450 yards rushing, a mere 90.6 yards per outing on the ground.

    So what has gone so terribly wrong in this department in 2013? Nose tackle Casey Hampton is gone, and inside linebacker Larry Foote is out, to name a few factors.

    This week, the Buffalo Bills and the league’s seventh-ranked running game invade the Steel City. If LeBeau’s defenders can recapture that form of seasons past they should make life very difficult for Doug Marrone’s offense.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) at Baltimore Ravens (3-5)

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Cincinnati Bengals
    Key to Victory: Give the tight ends a lot of work

    Quarterback Andy Dalton has had his good and bad moments this season. And last week’s 22-20 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins was certainly one of those less-than-memorable outings.

    This week, the Cincinnati Bengals face their old nemesis in the Baltimore Ravens, who aren’t playing their best football these days but still have a defensive unit that can get after people.

    So how does Marvin Lewis’ team keep outside linebackers Terrell Suggs (9.0) and Elvis Dumervil (5.5), who have combined for 14.5 of the team’s 28 sacks, out of the Cincinnati backfield? Make tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert a bigger part of the game plan, at least this week. The duo has combined for just 60 receptions and two scores this season.

    Consider that wideout A.J. Green has caught 57 passes, five for touchdowns, this season alone.

    So at least for this week, Dalton hopes to keep the Baltimore defense off-balance and on-guard this Sunday.

     

    Baltimore Ravens
    Key to Victory: Reestablish the ground game

    It is almost mind-boggling when you consider that only three teams in the league are averaging fewer yards per game on the ground than the Baltimore Ravens this season.

    A year ago John Harbaugh’s club ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing offense. The ground game was a big part of the team’s postseason run en route to winning Super Bowl XLVII and made life easier for quarterback Joe Flacco.

    But here’s a sobering set of numbers. In four playoff games in 2012, the Ravens totaled 539 yards on the ground. In eight games this season, Baltimore has rushed for a total of 573 yards.

    With the Bengals minus two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, it would be a major surprise if Harbaugh didn’t test the Cincinnati front seven early and extremely often.

Detroit Lions (5-3) at Chicago Bears (5-3)

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Detroit Lions
    Key to Victory: Establish Reggie Bush early

    How well does everyone remember this season’s first meeting between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions?

    Do you recall that the Bears actually owned a 10-6 lead early in the second quarter? But before you could say “restore the roar,” the Lions had opened up a 40-16 advantage in the fourth quarter.

    By game’s end, Lions running back Reggie Bush had touched the ball 22 times and totaled 173 yards from scrimmage, including 139 yards rushing and a touchdown in the 40-32 victory.

    Considering that the once-proud Chicago defense has slipped from eighth in the league in rushing defense in 2012 to 29th this season, a repeat performance by Bush could be in the cards this week at Soldier Field.

    That and the fact that four different players have rushed for 100 or more yards versus Marc Trestman’s team in eight games this season.

     

    Chicago Bears
    Key to Victory: Protect Jay Cutler

    First things first.

    Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is a go this week against the Lions, according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.

    “As soon as I got hurt I felt like I would be back quicker than they thought,” said Cutler, who will wind up missing just one start thanks to the team’s off-week.

    Now we’ll see if Chicago’s offensive front can do a better job of protecting its starting quarterback than it did six weeks ago. In the 40-32 loss at Ford Field, Cutler was sacked three times and committed four turnovers, one of those a fumble returned for a touchdown.

    Simply put, if the Bears want to avoid being swept by the Lions for the first time since 2007, they better plan on keeping Cutler around and upright.

Jacksonville Jaguars (0-8) at Tennessee Titans (4-4)

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    Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    Jacksonville Jaguars
    Key to Victory: Feed Maurice Jones-Drew

    We have yet to see a 100-yard rushing game from Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew in 2013.

    And with good reason considering his team has been outscored a combined 70-15 in the first quarter this season. Hence, Jones-Drew has totaled at least 20 carries in a game just once in eight outings this year.

    But now would be a good time to change all of that regardless of the score on Sunday at Nashville. That’s because the workhorse runner, who led the team in rushing yards last season despite missing the final 10 games of 2012, is the Jaguars’ best option in getting their first win of the season.

    All told, 25 or more attempts by M.J.D. could be A.O.K. as Jacksonville looks for that elusive first win of 2013.

     

    Tennessee Titans
    Key to Victory: Get to 21 points

    It’s almost too simple. But for the Tennessee Titans, beating teams in their own division has become quite difficult.

    And yes, the opposition this week is the Jaguars, who are not only winless on the season but have dropped 13 straight games dating back to 2012.

    Over that stretch of losses, Jacksonville has scored 20 or fewer points in each of those setbacks. In fact, the last time the Jaguars won a game was the last time they scored more than 20 points.

    That would be Week 12 of last season: Jaguars 24, Titans 19.

    It’s safe to say Mike Munchak remembers that loss as well as nine other setbacks last season. And don’t be surprised if the Titans take some chances downfield early and put the offensively challenged Jaguars in a big hole once again.

Oakland Raiders (3-5) at New York Giants (2-6)

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Oakland Raiders
    Key to Victory: Coming up with big plays via the passing game

    We have seen the occasional big play from Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor. But a lot of those have come with his legs and not necessarily his arm.

    While the former Ohio State standout is completing 61.1 percent of his passes this season, he has thrown only five touchdown passes in seven outings this season. That’s two less than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles threw last Sunday afternoon at Oakland.

    Facing a New York Giants defensive unit that has not allowed an offensive touchdown in its last two games, don’t be surprised if Pryor takes aim deep at a secondary that can be had at times.

    Given what quarterback Eli Manning and his receiving corps are capable of, the Raiders may need to do something they haven’t done in their last 16 games: score at least 30 points.

     

    New York Giants
    Key to Victory: Containing QB Terrelle Pryor

    There haven’t been a lot of positives when it comes to the 2013 New York Giants.

    Then again, the team has won its last two games following the franchise's first 0-6 start since 1976.

    Tom Coughlin’s defensive unit has certainly made some strides considering the fact that team has given up 223 points in just eight games. The Giants are 14th in the NFL in total defense this season, one year after ranking next-to-last in 2012.

    And New York is ninth in the league in rushing yards per game allowed. That’s bad news for Pryor, who leads the Raiders with 485 yards on the ground and is the main reason Dennis Allen’s club ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing this season.

    Stop Pryor from running wild and the Giants should be able to tee off on an offensive front that has allowed 32 sacks in eight games in 2013.

Philadelphia Eagles (4-5) at Green Bay Packers (5-3)

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Philadelphia Eagles
    Key to Victory: Score early

    Score early? No kidding.

    But wait a minute. Up until last week’s 49-point outburst against the Oakland Raiders, the Philadelphia Eagles offense failed to score a touchdown in two straight games.

    So what can Chip Kelly do to put the shorthanded Green Bay Packers in a hole early on Sunday? Running back LeSean McCoy continues to have a big year, and Mike McCarthy’s team gave up its share of rushing yards to Matt Forte in the Monday night loss to the Chicago Bears.

    With quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the lineup, you can expect a much different game plan from the Packers on Sunday. And they may not be as equipped to playing from behind as they may be with their star quarterback at the helm.

    Sitting just one game out of first place in the NFC East, it’s time for Kelly and company to take some chances.

     

    Green Bay Packers
    Key to Victory: Force turnovers

    A year ago, the Packers defense rebounded from a troubling 2011 in which it allowed the most passing yards in a season in NFL history.

    But by year’s end, defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ unit had a different problem: stopping the run. In two playoff games last season, the Packers allowed a combined 490 rushing yards. And even more disturbing was the fact that more than half of those yards (249) came from opposing quarterbacks.

    This season, Green Bay has had a different issue on defense. It wasn’t long ago that Capers’ unit was among the best in the business in forcing turnovers.

    In eight games this season, the Pack have totaled only seven takeaways. Lucky for them they’re facing an Eagles team that has committed 14 turnovers in 2013. And even more fortunate for Mike McCarthy and company may be the return of two key defensive players, one of those who does a pretty good job of forcing opposing quarterbacks into their share of miscues.

St. Louis Rams (3-6) at Indianapolis Colts (6-2)

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    Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    St. Louis Rams
    Key to Victory: Keep Andrew Luck on the sidelines

    I guess you could say that Stacy has it going on.

    That would be St. Louis Rams rookie running back Zac Stacy, who ran for 127 yards and two scores in last week’s loss to the Tennessee Titans. Six days earlier, the fifth-round pick from Vanderbilt rolled over the Seattle Seahawks defense for 134 yards in that 14-9 Monday night setback.

    Those two aforementioned scores were the first two rushing touchdowns of the season for the Rams. In fact, Stacy is the only running back on the team to reach the end zone in 2013, totaling three touchdowns.

    Even more significant may be the fact that Stacy has totaled 26 and 27 carries respectively the last two weeks—which would be 26 or 27 times that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck wouldn’t have the ball on Sunday.

    Get the picture?

     

    Indianapolis Colts
    Key to Victory: Take advantage of Rams’ secondary

    Anyone who watched Luck and fellow second-year pro T.Y. Hilton do their thing on Sunday night against the Houston Texans had to marvel.

    Last season, Hilton led the Colts with eight total touchdowns on receptions and returns. In 2013, he is once again leading Indianapolis with five touchdowns.

    It’s been a disappointing year for the Rams and in particular their defense. St. Louis defenders have allowed 14 touchdown passes this season, including two or more scores in six of their nine games. And that’s surprising considering the Jeff Fisher’s team has totaled 29 sacks.

    It would be interesting to see a clash of second-year standouts in Hilton and Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. And it would be very intriguing to see how the latter fares in a one-on-one battle. Jenkins has just one interception this season but leads the Rams with seven passes defensed.

Seattle Seahawks (8-1) at Atlanta Falcons (2-6)

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    Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

    Seattle Seahawks
    Key to Victory: Stifle Tony Gonzalez

    Perhaps we will get to see one of the Atlanta Falcons’ star wide receivers square off with the hard-hitting Seattle Seahawks cornerbacks after all.

    According to wideout Roddy White, he fully expects to see action this weekend when Richard Sherman and company invade the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

    But just in case White isn’t ready to go, look for Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas and the “Legion of Boom” to focus on eliminating Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez from Matt Ryan’s game plan. The 17-year veteran leads the team with 44 catches and four touchdown receptions.

    Then again, if White is his usual Roddy self, the defending NFC South champs may be primed for a big afternoon in this playoff rematch from a year ago.

     

    Atlanta Falcons
    Key to Victory: Turn Steven Jackson loose

    Conventional wisdom told us that running back Steve Jackson, signed by the Falcons during free agency this offseason, was the perfect choice by the team. And not only because he had rushed for 1,000 or more yards in eight straight seasons but also because he posed a threat in the passing game.

    But now would be the time to see more of those eight straight 1,000-yard campaigns, especially with the Seahawks coming to town.

    Pete Carroll’s club has managed to win the last two weeks despite allowing 200 and 205 yards on the ground, respectively, to the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Granted, the Falcons have been pretty woeful when it comes running the ball, averaging just over 18 attempts per contest and a disappointing 64.4 yards per game.

    But if not now, when? And with the Seahawks struggling to stop teams from running, Mike Smith and company would be wise to take advantage of this recent shortcoming.

Carolina Panthers (5-3) at San Francisco 49ers (6-2)

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    Bob Martin-USA TODAY Sports

    Carolina Panthers
    Key to Victory: The Ted Ginn Show

    One look at the Carolina Panthers top pass-catchers in 2013 and you will find the usual suspects.
    Steve Smith. Greg Olsen. Brandon LaFell. Ted Ginn.

    What?

    That is correct. Ginn ranks fourth on the team this season (his first with the Panthers) with 21 receptions, good for 367 yards and a pair of scores.

    It’s what you would call a minor upset considering the former San Francisco 49ers return artist has a combined 23 punt and kickoff returns this season.

    And speaking of the Niners, Ginn will not only test some of his former teammates but take aim at Jim Harbaugh’s solid kick-coverage units.

    The thought here is that Ginn scores twice on Sunday, once via the pass and another taking back a kick. And it is his skills doing the latter that figure to provide the Panthers with excellent field position all afternoon.

     

    San Francisco 49ers
    Key to Victory: Keep the Panthers defense on the field

    Has anyone noticed that the Panthers are third in the NFL this season in total yards per game allowed and second in the league versus the run?

    You can bet the 49ers have noticed. And they intend on giving the crowd in San Francisco plenty of opportunities to see linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and the rest of this stout Carolina unit.

    San Francisco boasts the league’s top-ranked ground attack, one that has averaged 183.8 yards per game rushing during the team’s current five-game winning streak. And the Niners plan on giving the Panthers a full dose of power football on Sunday.

    Elsewhere, Kuechly is but one of the star attractions at linebacker in this matchup. Along with teammate Thomas Davis, the Niners have their own stars in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman...as well as another former Pro Bowler who is getting ready to make his return to the field.

Houston Texans (2-6) at Arizona Cardinals (4-4)

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    Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

    Houston Texans
    Key to Victory: Ball security

    How do you figure this game?

    Last week, for the first time all season, the Houston Texans did not commit a turnover. And the team owned a 24-6 lead over the visiting Indianapolis Colts.

    But when it was all said and done, it is the Texans who now look done. The 27-24 home setback was Houston’s sixth in a row, putting it a full four games behind the Colts in the AFC South.

    So what to do? The team is still in contention, especially if it can knock off the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

    It may surprise some that Bruce Arians’ team has doubled the Texans in terms of wins in 2013. Actually, the Cards have nearly quadrupled Houston in terms of takeaways. Arizona has totaled 19 takeaways this season compared to the Texans’ five.

    It’s also worth noting that 12 of the Cardinals’ 19 takeaways have come in the team’s four wins (compared to forcing seven turnovers in four losses). Texans quarterback Case Keenum has yet to thrown an interception this season, and if he can maintain that at least one more week, perhaps there’s a strong case for the Cards to end their six-game losing streak.

     

    Arizona Cardinals
    Key to Victory: Avoid the pick-six

    There have been a lot of positives for the Cardinals in 2013 despite the fact that the team has the same win-loss record as it did at this time a year ago.

    But consider that last season, Arizona jumped out to a 4-0 start before free-falling with 11 losses in its next 12 games.

    This is a different team under Arians. But it still has its issues. And while veteran quarterback Carson Palmer has brought a lot of positives to the team (especially to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald), he continues to have his recent issues in regards to making life easier for the opposition.

    Dating back to 2010 in what proved to be his final season with the Cincinnati Bengals, Palmer has played in 49 games and thrown a disturbing 64 interceptions over that span. And 10 of those thefts have been returned for scores.

    Palmer (14) trails only Eli Manning (15) in terms of interceptions in 2013. And with the Texans looking to snap a six-game losing streak, the Cardinals quarterback certainly doesn’t have to make life easier for a desperate team.

    Then again, that is easier said than done with J.J. Watt in your face.

Denver Broncos (7-1) at San Diego Chargers (4-4)

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Denver Broncos
    Key to Victory: Don’t give Chargers short field

    Sometimes you look at the current offensive statistics for the Denver Broncos and it makes you do a double take.

    Then again, you take a look at the team’s defensive numbers and Broncos’ fans were wishing those numbers were typos.

    But 343 points and 29 touchdown passes by quarterback Peyton Manning aside, the number that may be the most eye-opening this season may not be No. 18 but the number 17.

    As in 17 turnovers in eight games, including a league-high 11 lost fumbles.

    And if the Broncos don’t want to make it two losses in three games, they would do well to prevent those mistakes and give the San Diego Chargers some very easy opportunities.

     

    San Diego Chargers
    Key to Victory: A big dose of Ryan Mathews

    It’s hard to explain.

    Last week vs. the Washington Redskins, the San Diego Chargers owned a 14-7 halftime lead. Running back Ryan Mathews had totaled 33 yards rushing on six carries in the first half.

    The previous two games, Mathews had rushed for 100-plus yards in the team’s wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars. The former first-round pick also totaled 20-plus carries in each of those victories.

    So what happened in D.C. last Sunday? After the Redskins tied the score at 14-all in the third quarter, Mathews was limited to one carry and one yard the rest of the afternoon?

    Why?

    If the Chargers are to cool off the hot Denver offense, their best bet is to keep Peyton Manning and company off the field. And while the Broncos defense is ranked third in the NFL against the run, it is certainly worth testing.

    Don’t be surprised if offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt puts in his two cents when it comes to the ground attack. Because limiting Manning’s time on the field is the only thing that makes sense.

Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at New Orleans Saints (6-2)

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Dallas Cowboys
    Key to Victory: Pressure Drew Brees…often

    Due mostly to injuries, the Dallas Cowboys pass rush has tailed off considerably after a strong start this season. After totaling 13 sacks in its first three games, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s unit has managed just 10 sacks in its last six contests.

    Some of that can be attributed to the absence of defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who has missed the last three games. But the perennial Pro Bowler may be back for this prime-time affair with the New Orleans Saints.

    “DeMarcus Ware is one of the best players in the league,” said coach Jason Garrett to Calvin Watkins via ESPNDallas.com. “So it's certainly better to have him than not have him and hopefully he's healthy and ready to go. He's a guy who can impact the ballgame himself. He's done that throughout his career.”

    Ware, who has totaled four sacks in six games this season, will battle Saints left tackle Charles Brown. Brees has been sacked 20 times in eight outings this season, and if the Dallas defense can force the prolific passer into at least two turnovers, a Cowboys victory is a strong possibility.

     

    New Orleans Saints
    Key to Victory: Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s memory

    In an attempt to fix a defensive unit that allowed the most total yards in a season in NFL history, the Saints brought in Rob Ryan to cure what ails them.

    And so far so good for Sean Payton’s club, as New Orleans ranks ninth in the NFL in total yards allowed per game.

    Of course, Ryan spent the previous two seasons in Dallas as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. And as was the case a year ago in Big D, there were a lot of big injuries. Ryan’s unit finished 19th in the NFL in yards allowed last season, and the team gave up 25.0 points per game.

    Let’s get back to 2013. Familiarity breeds a good game plan. Ryan knows that the Cowboys aren’t likely to exploit the Saints’ biggest defensive weakness: stopping the run. Dallas ranks 27th in rushing this season, which literally offsets New Orleans’ 25th-ranked run defense.

    And since Ryan is also pretty familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of Jason Garrett’s offensive line, look for the Saints to bring plenty of heat in that very noisy Superdome.

Miami Dolphins (4-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8)

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Miami Dolphins
    Key to Victory: Sustain the ground game

    The focus here will be on the field for the Miami Dolphins.

    Last week, Joe Philbin’s team snapped a four-game losing streak thanks to a 22-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

    In some ways, the game was eerily similar to the Dolphins' outing the previous week, a 27-17 loss to the New England Patriots.

    In that contest, Miami owned a 17-3 halftime lead thanks in part to a running game that rolled up 103 yards on 22 carries in the first two quarters. The Dolphins ran just nine times for 53 yards after intermission, and a 14-point lead turned into a 10-point loss.

    Last week versus the Bengals, Philbin and company owned a 17-3 advantage midway through the third quarter and in the process had already rolled up 142 yards rushing on 22 attempts. Once again, the Dolphins squandered the lead (before rallying late and in overtime). And once again, the ground attack was a non-factor late, as Miami ran just eight times for 15 yards the rest of the evening.

    Against the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dolphins may want to chew up a little more clock this week should they jump out to a double-digit lead once again. And the Bucs can tell you everything you know about blowing a big lead.

     

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    Key to Victory: Close the door

    It was theirs for the taking.

    And obviously, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers couldn’t take it.

    After jumping out to a stunning 21-0 second-quarter lead over the Seahawks in Seattle and owning a 17-point lead in the third quarter, the Bucs stopped there.

    Seattle would score the final 20 points of the afternoon in a 27-24 overtime win, the latest loss in a nightmare season for head coach Greg Schiano and company.

    Tampa’s second-half woes this season haven’t gotten a lot of attention, but they are certainly worth noting. The Buccaneers have been outscored a combined 92-36 in the final two quarters and overtime.

    It shapes up as an interesting tilt with the Dolphins, who we have seen in recent weeks have their own issues protecting halftime leads. And the absence of workhorse running back Doug Martin hasn’t helped Schiano’s case this season.

    The Bucs have made a habit of finding ways to lose this season. And unfortunately for all involved, they’ve gotten rather good at it.

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