As the NFL moves into the second half of its 2011 season, it's becoming more and more apparent which teams are contenders and which teams are pretenders. There have been surprise teams—both good and bad—teams doing exactly what was expected and new stars emerging all over the place.
Here's a look at the picks for winners and losers in every Week 9 matchup.
Vegas Line: Chiefs by 5.5
Analysis: These are teams going in opposite directions. Kansas City has rebounded well after an 0-3 start and is positioning itself to make a run at either the division crown or a wild card spot. The AFC West is a winnable division by three of the four teams (forget Denver). This is a game the Chiefs should win and must if they want to keep themselves in position.
The Dolphins haven't won a game this season and, despite a strong showing for much of last week's game against New York, look like a team that's playing the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes more than they are playing the games on the field. They have a coach who's a lame duck and a talent vacuum on both sides of the ball.
Winner: Kansas City, which should have a wider margin than that 5.5-point mark.
Vegas Line: Dallas by 12
Analysis: The Cowboys are a team that is hard to figure out. They've got everything they need talent-wise: a solid quarterback, an emerging runner (DeMarco Murray), two solid receivers and a tight end, an offensive line that's improving and a defense that's much better under new coordinator Rob Ryan.
The problem? They can't seem to win games. They laid down against New England and then never showed up against Philadelphia. They're a 3-4 team that could easily be 4-3 or even 5-2, if they were up to their potential. It's a shame because the division is very open this season.
Seattle is the very definition of a team without talent on offense. The Seahawks have no quarterback play, fringe runners and receivers, a decent offensive line with nothing to protect and a lack of skill. The defense is mediocre at best and, at worst, a disaster waiting to really unravel.
Winner: Dallas, but probably not by that big a margin. The Cowboys don't put opponents away.
Vegas Line: Saints by 8.0
Analysis: These two just met a few weeks back. The Buccaneers won that clash 26-20 in their stadium, but now they have to go to New Orleans off their bye and face a Saints team that was dominated and embarrassed by the previously winless Rams on Sunday.
The Saints were uncharacteristically sloppy in their protection and let Drew Brees get beat up by St. Louis' defense. They'll probably be hungry for revenge of that early loss to the Bucs and will also be ready to prove themselves again. They have to be better on offense (when have we said that before?).
Tampa Bay was unimpressive before its bye week, getting slaughtered by a so-so Chicago team in London in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score. You just get the feeling this team is taking a step back after a surprising 2010. The Bucs just don't seem to have it.
Winner: Saints, although this one could be pretty interesting if New Orleans has another off day.
Vegas Line: 49ers by 3.5
Analysis: This is another game between teams going in opposite directions. The difference between this game and the one in Kansas City is that the gap between the two teams might as well be the Grand Canyon.
The 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFC right now and are riding a brilliant game plan by new coach Jim Harbaugh, some lights-out defense and steady offensive play by quarterback Alex Smith. They might be the first team to clinch a division by virtue of the fact that they play in the NFC West (or NCAA Division III's lost division).
This week, the 49ers get to feast on a Redskins team that not only got shut out last week, but allowed its inexperienced quarterback to be sacked nine times.
Washington has fallen apart since heading into its bye week at 3-1. It's lost three straight since and has changed from the mediocre Rex Grossman to the more mediocre John Beck under center. It's not working, and Mike Shanahan is now looking at a team that's missing a key piece and is banged up beyond belief.
Winner: 49ers by more than three. This game could get very ugly very fast.
Vegas Line: Houston by 11
Analysis: Was anyone surprised that the high-powered Texans didn't quite put away Jacksonville until late? I was a little put off by that, but that was a Jaguars team that was dominating on defense for most of the last two weeks.
The Texans shouldn't have as tough a road against Cleveland. The trend this week seems to be bad mismatches. That continues here. The Browns are 3-4 and one of those wins was 6-3 over Seattle, so that is about as useful as a loss.
The Browns can't get going on offense and their lack of weapons around Colt McCoy is becoming very apparent as the opponents get tougher and more hungry. The Texans are a team looking for their first playoff spot ever, so they are certainly eager to feast on also-rans.
I'm not sure if the Browns can get going in this one. The Texans defense hasn't been perfect, but it's been pretty tough. It did shut down a Pittsburgh team that's been lighting people up since, so maybe the Texans really get a nice day against the Browns.
Winner: Houston. I'd say 11 is about right for a spread.
Vegas Line: Falcons by 7.0
Analysis: I'm shocked the spread is that small. This is a Colts team that, the last time we saw them against the NFC South, was getting its butt handed to it 62-7 by New Orleans. Now, granted the Falcons are not as offensively prolific as the Saints, but they aren't a slouch team.
They're also getting rookie receiver Julio Jones back.
The Colts aren't getting Peyton Manning back. At this point, he might as well sit out the season. Why bother when the Colts will be the first team eliminated from playoff contention?
Atlanta is looking to really get back into this NFC playoff picture. It's got to get better play from the skill spots on both sides of the ball. Matt Ryan has had a week to get healthy again, but he must be more consistent if the Falcons are going to regain that 2010 form and make another playoff run.
Winner: Falcons. This will likely be a bloodbath. Sorry, Colts fans.
Vegas Line: Buffalo by 1.5
Analysis: Finally another game that's really worth watching. This is a big game for both teams.
The Bills want this game to keep their slim lead over New England in the AFC East and also as another stepping stone to proving their legitimacy. The Jets need this game to really vault themselves back into the AFC East picture and also as a way to prove they are more than just hot air.
This is pitting a great passing offense against a great passing defense, a great rushing attack in Buffalo against a suspect run defense. This is one of the biggest surprises against a team that many thought would be much better than 4-3.
If not for the late game on Sunday, this would be the game of the week.
The team that executes on defense will win this game. The Jets have the talent to slow Ryan Fitzpatrick. If they can bottle up the receivers, they can probably win the game with a few big plays. However, the Bills defense exploded last week. The Jets offensive line isn't exactly thrilling anyone.
Winner: Call me a believer. I'll take Buffalo by a field goal late.
Vegas Line: Titans by 3.0
Analysis: And the rookie quarterback playing the most winning football is: Andy Dalton. Who saw that coming? There were more questions around Dalton than anyone in the quarterback class, but he's been quietly effective. He's not flashy, but he does things the right way and has steadied the Bengals attack.
No one expected this to be a game between playoff contenders either. Both teams are fighting for likely wild card berths in the AFC. No one saw that coming.
This is an intriguing game. Both teams have outplayed their talent levels so far, so there's a sense that someone is coming back to Earth eventually. Which team blinks first is anyone's guess.
The Titans need to get more out of the running game. Chris Johnson has been missing and it's going to be what bites them eventually. Matt Hasselbeck isn't elite anymore and if a good pass rush finds him, the Titans go nowhere.
Winner: Going against the spread here. I'll take the Bengals by a touchdown.
Vegas Line: Raiders by 8.0
Analysis: So, this game features two quarterback story lines worth watching: Tim Tebow's tenuous starting job in Denver and Carson Palmer's return to the field as a starter for the Raiders.
This game could be interesting just because it's a case of two quarterbacks running offenses that they just aren't that good in right now. Tebow isn't playing quarterback the way the NFL demands. Palmer is only in his third week with the playbook. That means he probably knows half of the offense or less.
I like the Raiders in this game as long as they are healthy. If Darren McFadden is on the field, the Raiders will win regardless of quarterback play. Palmer didn't have a good debut, but no one who knows 10 percent of the offense is going to do very well against a motivated Chiefs team.
The Broncos have no talent at receiver and have questionable running backs and linemen. That's not a good place to put a young quarterback who's still learning. If the Lions can destroy the Broncos, the Raiders certainly stand a good chance.
Winner: Raiders by more than two scores. This is probably another scary game for Tebow.
Vegas Line: Patriots by 8.5
Analysis: This is interesting. The Patriots looked, well, un-Patriotic on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. In fact, they lost a game to a team that played Patriots football against them. That's a novel idea and something that teams will likely look to copy now that it's been proven as a cure for Tom Brady.
The Giants defense is another Pittsburgh-like unit that loves to get after the quarterback. The big question is whether or not their corners can play man coverage against the Patriots receivers. If they can, they can have a good shot at winning.
People named Manning don't usually do well against the Patriots and it's rough betting on Eli Manning, especially when he's almost due for a letdown.
The question in this game is whether the Giants will use the issues Pittsburgh exposed or if they'll try to outscore the Patriots. Not many teams can do that. The running of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs will be key here.
Winner: Upset of the week. I'll take the Giants by one point in a high-scoring affair.
Vegas Line: Green Bay by 5.5
Analysis: Uh-oh. The Packers are going to come to town right after the Chargers suffered against the Chiefs. That's bad news. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football right now. You can't argue with a guy who's on pace to throw for something like 5,400 yards.
The Chargers are starting to fall to pieces after an uncharacteristically fast start. Philip Rivers looks off. He's playing bad football right now and has become turnover prone. That's something he won't be able to afford against the Packers, a team that can put up points in bunches.
The only thing going for the Chargers is that the Packers just don't defend very well. They've given up gobs of passing yards to guys like Cam Newton (not bad, but he's a rookie).
I get the feeling this game is going to fall onto the shoulders of the San Diego defense. If it can somehow slow the Packers, the Chargers have a chance. It just have to play mistake free, which it hasn't quite done yet.
Winner: Can't bet against Rodgers and the champs. Right now they could go 16-0. Packers by at least five.
Vegas Line: Cardinals by 3.0
Analysis: A week ago, this looked very different. The Rams were reeling, having lost all six games to open the season and were playing with A.J. Feeley under center. The Cardinals weren't in much better shape, but at least they had won a game and were relatively healthy.
Now it looks completely different. The Cardinals blew a huge lead to Baltimore and really wouldn't have had that lead against an offense that was having a better half. They just haven't been explosive and they haven't established much of a rushing game.
The Rams shocked everyone by beating the Saints badly in St. Louis. Steven Jackson looks healthy. Feeley can still manage a game when needed. If the Rams get Sam Bradford back, they could make things more interesting in the NFC even if they don't have a winning record.
The Cardinals are a huge disappointment wrapped around the most disappointing player of the year: Kevin Kolb. He was supposed to bring back the Kurt Warner days. Instead, he's making Cardinals fans relive the Max Hall days.
Winner: I'm shocked on the spread. I'll go the other way and take the Rams by three—more if Bradford comes back in.
Vegas Line: Philadelphia by 7.0
Analysis: This is a good match against two teams trying to get back into their division races. The road is easier for Philadelphia, which is only chasing the Giants at this point and is better than its 3-4 record indicates. The Bears are looking up at Green Bay and surprising Detroit.
Before the Sunday night game, I was more even on these two teams. The Bears, however, have offensive line issues that are causing Jay Cutler a lot of pain. The Eagles offensive line, so bad early, has started to gel.
This could be a good, close game.
Winner: I'm going to say that spread is too big, but that the Eagles will still win the game.
Vegas Line: Pittsburgh by 3.0
Analysis: As head coach Mike Tomlin would say, "It's Ravens week" in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are riding high after finally solving the Patriots and Tom Brady. The Ravens are just happy to have survived the Cardinals, who at one point led them 24-3.
The Ravens offense has been a mixed bag of ugly the last two weeks. The Steelers offense has been going the other way. Since it's been shut down by the Texans, it has exploded against Tennessee, Arizona and New England and for one half against Jacksonville.
The defenses are always tough and especially so when these two teams face off. The Steelers have some injuries to deal with on that side of the ball, but the philosophy of "next man up" hasn't hurt them at all to this point. They'll need a flawless game against the Ravens.
The margin for error in these games is razor thin. One mistake could doom either team. This game, as always, will likely come down to a field goal.
Winner: Revenge is a dish best served cold. It figures to be cold in Pittsburgh, and Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers will be out for blood once again as they squeak out a win in the game of the week.