We now enter the tenth week of the regular season, and the playoff picture still looks slightly murky on the NFC side. But on the AFC side, it's becoming clearer as to which teams will be there for the playoffs, and who will be staying home to watch from their big, plush recliner.
This week starts Thursday night games on NFL Network—where the first midweek regular season game is between the Cleveland Browns and visiting Denver Broncos.
Denver's defense has been on vacation all season. Without top cornerback Champ Bailey, who is out with an injury, the Broncos have slipped to 26th against the pass. On the upside, though, the Broncos will be going up against a greenhorn at quarterback.
Cleveland's Brady Quinn will make his first career start in place of the injured Derek Anderson.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns have trouble stopping the run, ranked 28th in the league in rushing defense. Lucky for them, the Broncos don't have anyone to run the ball.
I say the Browns should win this one in a close game, thanks to the home-crowd advantage. The Dawg Pound should be pumping tonight!
Browns by 3
Tennessee Titans at Chicago Bears
Both Kerry Collins and the Titans' running game are on fire! Everytime I watched the Titans' offense run a play in the closing minutes of their game against Green Bay, I was astounded at how seemingly easy its running backs ate up the yards while converting first downs.
The Bears have ol' Rex Grossman back at quarterback, and I can see this becoming a real mess very quickly, especially against the tough Tennessee defense. Bad week to be Rex, and a bad week to be a Bears fan.
Titans light 'em up and win by 14.
Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Colts are starting to look like the team we have all come to know, while the Steelers keep plugging along, finding ways to win.
Indianapolis squeaked by the Patriots last week, which could be a morale booster for the Colts, even though the Pats were without Tom Brady. Peyton Manning is still trying to get his legs back, but he gradually improves each week.
Ben Roethlisberger is a question mark at this point for the Steelers, nursing an injured shoulder and thumb. If he practices tomorrow, look for him to play on Sunday. Pittsburgh has been finding ways to win some games, and has been playing very well at home this year.
I'll go with the Steelers this week, as the Colts aren't quite "there" still. Steelers by seven.
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
Buffalo and New England are tied for first in the AFC East. Tied. For first. I haven't seen a two-way tie in the AFC East in at least seven or eight years, back when the Colts were in the AFC East. New England has perennially dominated this division, but this year they are sharing the limelight—presumably because of Brady's injury.
New England is still in playoff contention, and Matt Cassel is definitely a good game manager as Tom Brady's understudy.
The Bills are rolling still, and I am feeling an upset win in Foxborough. I'll say the Bills win it in a close one by six.
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Every time these two teams square off, it's a down-in-the-trenches defensive battle.
Last season, the Eagles were owned by the Giants. This year Philly has made a couple tweaks to both sides of the ball that may help prevent this from happening again. On defense, the Eagles acquired highly touted cornerback Asante Samuel from the Patriots through free agency. And playing a large role in quarterback Donovan McNabb's stellar season following ACL surgery is wideout/return man DeSean Jackson, who Philadelphia selected in the second round of the draft.
The Giants have had a real bang-up season so far, but I do make the argument that until two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, they have played sub-par competition. Now with the meat of their schedule ahead of them, this week will begin to define who the Giants really are.
The Eagles are playing at home, and I like them in this game because their offensive weapons are playing really well. In addition, their defense is young but smart and uses its quickness in blitzing on almost every down.
Eagles by three.
Carolina Panthers at Oakland Raiders
A few years ago, I would be somewhat worried if the Panthers were going up against the Oakland Raiders—Super Bowl contenders in the recent past. This year, though, I find it simply insulting that Carolina has to waste a week of preparation to play against a team that is in huge disarray.
Having made that statement, I don't mean any disrespect towards the coaches and players on the beleaguered Oakland franchise. I do, however, find Al Davis to be a huge wrench in the workings of what could quite realistically be a formidable opponent.
For the Raiders: not this week, not this year. Panthers by 24.
San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are not the heartbreakers that they've been in recent years. Look for this game to be put away by halftime, with the Cardinals eventually winning by 14.
The rest of Sunday's matchups:
I like the Falcons at home over the Saints by seven.
Look for Green Bay to sink the Vikings by seven.
St. Louis will fall to the NY Jets by six.
Ravens will corral the Texans by three.
Lions get their first W of the season over the Jags; win by two.
Dolphins knock down the Seahawks by 14.
Chargers strike the Chiefs, win by 10.
Bye: Dallas, Cincinnati, Washington, Tampa Bay