It's now November, the time of the year when our minds begin to be preoccupied with holiday travel plans, gift ideas and bracing for the long winter ahead.
And of course, the NFL playoffs as well.
Though little has been solved in regards to the most anticipated portion of the professional football calendar as this hard-to-figure 2011 season nears its midway point, as 19 of the league's 32 entries are presently sporting winning records and 22 teams stand no worse than one game out of a postseason spot at the moment, it's still an entertaining exercise to take a stab on what could possibly happen over the next couple of months.
Therefore, we hereby present to you a detailed look at the postseason prospects for the AFC's crop of teams heading into the second half of the schedule, with the NFC to be analyzed in next week's column.
THE FRONT-RUNNERS 1) Pittsburgh (6-2); 2) Buffalo (5-2); 3) Houston (5-3); 4) Kansas City (4-3); 5) Cincinnati (5-2); 6) New England (5-2)
That's how the teams would stack up in terms of playoff seeding if the season ended today.
It should be noted that the six clubs that were in this category at this point a year ago all advanced to the playoffs, obviously good news for supporters of the Bills and Bengals -- the two most pleasant surprises in the AFC through the season's first half. It's also somewhat of a sign of validation for the Texans, the lone NFL franchise that's yet to make an appearance in the postseason.
Being on this list is going to guarantee anything, however, especially when factoring in how tight all the races are at this stage. The AFC West looks to be particularly muddled, with the Chiefs engaged with Oakland and San Diego in a three-way deadlock that doesn't figure to be decided until the final block of games on New Year's Day.
Buffalo is perhaps the most interesting of this lot. With two games still to play against the potentially-disinterested Dolphins and a home encounter with doormat Denver also on tap, the Bills likely aren't going to go away. How the longtime also-rans handle tough road tilts with Dallas, the Jets, San Diego and New England will ultimately determine their playoff fate, however.
THE CONTENDERS Baltimore (5-2), New York Jets (4-3), Tennessee (4-3), San Diego (4-3), Oakland (4-3)
This bracket contains three members who have all made multiple playoff appearances in the last three years in the Ravens, Jets and Chargers, and one that hasn't made it to the postseason since 2002 (the Raiders).
Both Baltimore and New York have big games on the road against a first-place team in their respective divisions this weekend, with the Jets traveling to upstate New York to battle the upstart Bills and the Ravens renewing their rivalry with a Pittsburgh squad set on avenging a 35-7 dressing-down by its hated foe in Baltimore back in Week 1. While Sunday's clash won't be do-or-die for the Jets, who still get to host both Buffalo and New England later in the season, the Ravens may have a tough time overtaking the resurgent Steelers for the AFC North crown with a loss.
None of the three AFC West candidates appears to possess a more favorable path than the others, with the Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders all having a slew of challenging non-division matchups down the stretch. It wouldn't be the least surprising if not one emerges from the pack entering the final two weeks, making the division's representative dependent on how Oakland's Christmas Eve trip to Kansas City and San Diego's voyage to the Black Hole in the regular- season finale each play out.
Even though they're essentially in a two-horse race with Houston for AFC South superiority, the Titans seem to be the least threatening of this bunch. Tennessee has already lost twice within the division, including a 41-7 dismantling by the Texans two weeks back, and the Week 17 showdown between the clubs will take place in Houston. A Wild Card bid could be a possibility, but the Titans don't look as strong as the runners-up in both the East and North.
THE LONGSHOTS Cleveland (3-4), Denver (2-5), Jacksonville (2-6)
The Browns are already two games behind their next closest competitor in the rugged AFC North and still have to face the Steelers and Ravens twice and the Bengals on the road. The Broncos and Jaguars are only mentioned here because of their relative proximity in the standings, but the truth is neither owns a realistic chance of contending unless their struggling young quarterbacks suddenly improve by leaps and bounds over the next two months.
THE NO-SHOTS Miami (0-7), Indianapolis (0-8)
Pretty self-explanatory here. The Dolphins' tough remaining schedule makes them the current favorites in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, as the Colts do have three upcoming home games (Jacksonville, Carolina, Tennessee) that would be considered winnable.
TOUGHEST ROAD: Cincinnati. The Bengals' long-term future may be very bright, but their outlook doesn't look so rosy in the weeks ahead. Cincinnati still has two games remaining with the two AFC North heavyweights, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and a home date with Houston and road test at Tennessee won't be cakewalks either.
EASIEST ROAD: Houston. The Texans aren't just a strong bet to capture the AFC South, but a first-round bye as a top-two seed is well within reach when glancing at the schedule. Assuming it avoids any catastrophic injuries, Houston should be favored in every game with the possible exception of road bouts with Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, and neither of those two can be considered daunting assignments.
GAMES YOU WON'T WANT TO MISS Baltimore at Pittsburgh (Nov. 6) New England at N.Y. Jets (Nov. 13) Buffalo at N.Y. Jets (Nov. 27) Buffalo at San Diego (Dec. 11) Baltimore at San Diego (Dec. 18) Oakland at Kansas City (Dec. 24) Buffalo at New England (Jan. 1) San Diego at Oakland (Jan. 1)
THE PROJECTED FINISH 1) Houston (13-3); 2) Pittsburgh (13-3); 3) New England (12-4); 4) Kansas City (8-8); 5) Baltimore (11-5); 6) N.Y. Jets (11-5)
The Texans' early October victory over the Steelers could loom very large from a seeding standpoint down the road, as could the Chiefs' recent shutout of the Raiders in Carson Palmer's disastrous Silver and Black debut. If Kansas City winds up sweeping the Raiders, that may prove to be the difference in what's shaping up to be a down-to-the-wire AFC West race among three teams that all have been way too inconsistent to believe any will be able to separate themselves.
The AFC East and Wild Card battles also appear to be set up for thrilling finishes, with Buffalo giving the above choices a serious run for their money. But until the Bills show they can win a high-stakes game on the road against a quality team -- something the Patriots, Jets and Ravens have each proven on multiple occasions -- I'm leaving them just short of making the cut.
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found at:
Find Fantasy Editor Steve Schwarz's latest analysis at:
SUICIDE POOL PIX
1. Houston (vs. Cleveland) -- Texans are superior to the middling Browns in nearly every phase and shouldn't be severely tested as long as they show up ready to go.
3. Atlanta (at Indianapolis) -- Falcons appear as if they've finally got it together after starting slowly, while battered Colts have just about fallen completely apart.
A mixed bag of results from last week's predictions, as I was able to correctly peg 10 of 13 outright winners on the docket. Picking against the spread was another matter entirely, however, as I went a brutal 4-9 with the line involved. My overall record in the latter category fell to an uninspiring 51-61-4 (.457) for the season, offering ample evidence that this column should be used for entertainment purposes only, while the straight-up mark now stands at a more-convincing 73-43 (.629) through eight weeks.
Atlanta (4-3) at Indianapolis (0-8), Sunday, 1:00 (Atlanta -7)
Storylines: Injury-riddled Indianapolis begins stretch of three straight home games still in search of first victory of 2011, while rested Falcons shoot for third consecutive win and coming off Week 8 bye...Colts 13-1 all-time against Atlanta and have never lost to Falcons at home in six prior meetings...Atlanta moved to 2-2 on road this season with 23-16 decision over contending Detroit on Oct. 23 behind 122-yard effort from running back Michael Turner...Turner averaging 27 carries and 130.5 yards during team's two-game surge and faces Indianapolis defense ranked 31st versus run (144.0 ypg)...Falcons rookie receiver Julio Jones set to return from two-game absence due to hamstring injury, but offensive tackle Sam Baker (back) questionable and club placed fullback Ovie Mughelli (knee) on injured reserve last week...Running back Joseph Addai (hamstring) questionable for Colts, but rookie offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo (ankle) on track to play for first time since Week 4...Indianapolis 30th in NFL in scoring (15.1 ppg) and total yards (294.9 ypg), but gained season-best 399 yards (158 rushing) in 27-10 loss at Tennessee last Sunday...Colts also surrendering league-worst 31.5 points per game and are 31st in total defense (402.9 ypg), and haven't forced a turnover in five straight games.
Fast Fact: The Colts are one of only two teams, along with the 2010 Houston Texans, to allow at least 23 points in a season's first eight games over the past 30 years.
Prediction: Colts have actually been fairly competitive at home, but still won't have an answer for Turner and Atlanta's rediscovered running game. Falcons 31, Colts 20.
Cleveland (3-4) at Houston (5-3), Sunday, 1:00 (Houston -11)
Storylines: AFC South-leading Texans aim for third straight win and maintained half-game edge on Tennessee in division standings with 24-14 home triumph over Jacksonville last Sunday...Browns have dropped three of four following 2-1 start and dealt 20-10 loss at NFC West front-runner San Francisco in Week 8...Both teams dealing with injuries to offensive stars, though Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis hopeful to return from two-game sit-out due to hamstring strain...Houston wideout Andre Johnson uncertain to play with hamstring pull that's sidelined him four consecutive weeks...No. 2 running back Montario Hardesty (calf) ruled out for Browns, with team signing journeyman Thomas Clayton and waiving wide receiver Brian Robiskie on Tuesday...Cleveland wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi probable, however, after missing last week with concussion...Texans running back Arian Foster posted second-straight 100-yard game against Jaguars and takes on Browns' 26th-ranked run defense (127.3 ypg) that permitted 174 yards on the ground to 49ers... Cleveland tied for 28th in scoring (15.3 ppg) and hasn't put up over 17 points in last five outings, while Houston fifth in scoring defense (18.1 ppg) and allowing third-fewest total yards (286.8 ypg) in league...Texans have held last two opponents to 174 yards or less.
Fast Fact: Texans are 4-0 this season and 28-3 all-time under head coach Gary Kubiak when they have 30 or more rushing attempts in a game.
Prediction: Texans have proven they can withstand Johnson's absence, and sputtering Browns haven't posed much of a threat to anyone as of late. Texans 20, Browns 13.
Miami (0-7) at Kansas City (4-3), Sunday, 1:00 (Kansas City -4)
Storylines: Matchup of teams going in opposite directions, with ascending Chiefs having won four consecutive times following 0-3 start and hard-luck Dolphins mired in 10-game losing streak dating back to last season...Kansas City moved into three-way tie for first place in AFC West after Monday's critical 23-20 overtime triumph over divisional foe San Diego, team's ninth regular-season victory in last 11 tests at Arrowhead Stadium...Miami failed to hold onto early 14-3 lead in tough 20-17 defeat at New York last Sunday, one week after blowing 15-point advantage in final three minutes in overtime setback to Denver...Dolphins running back Reggie Bush recorded first 100-yard rushing game since 2006 in Week 8 loss, while rookie backfield mate Daniel Thomas could return after missing Giants game with hamstring injury and cornerback Vontae Davis (hamstring) doubtful...Chiefs rookie wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin had career bests of five catches and 82 yards and scored first career touchdown versus Chargers, while quarterback Matt Cassel threw for season-high 261 yards...Kansas City still 28th overall in passing offense (184.1 ypg), while Miami 27th in pass defense (270.7 ypg) and allowed 344 yards through the air to Giants...Dolphins last in NFL in third-down conversions (25.8 percent) and have minus-eight turnover ratio on year.
Fast Fact: With Monday's win, the Chiefs became the fifth team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to win four straight games following an 0-3 start, and first to accomplish the feat since the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Prediction: In a most familiar refrain, Dolphins will fight hard and keep it relatively close before ultimately being done in by a costly mistake or two. Chiefs 23, Dolphins 13.
N.Y. Jets (4-3) at Buffalo (5-2), Sunday, 1:00 (Buffalo -1.5)
Storylines: Important clash between AFC East contenders, with much-improved Bills presently tied with New England atop division and 2010 conference title game participant Jets one game back of co-leaders...Buffalo gained share of first place with 23-0 drubbing of reeling Washington last Sunday in Toronto and is 4-0 as home team this season...New York carried two-game win streak into Week 8 bye after rallying for 27-21 decision over San Diego on Oct. 23, but is 0-3 on road in 2011...Jets have bested Bills as visitor in three straight years, however, including 38-14 rout in Orchard Park last season, and have prevailed in five of last six meetings between clubs...Nose tackle Kyle Williams (foot) and offensive tackle Demetrius Bell (shoulder) both unlikely to play for Buffalo, but wide receiver Donald Jones (ankle) a possibility to return from two-game absence...Defensive lineman Mike Devito (knee) probable for New York, which signed former Bills tight end Shawn Nelson Monday and already has failed Buffalo 2009 first-round pick, outside linebacker Aaron Maybin, on roster...Bills backup quarterback/kick returner Brad Smith spent first five seasons with Jets (2006-10) and opposes ex-team for first time...Buffalo defense coming off first shutout since 2006 and racked up nine sacks against Redskins, including 2 1/2 from rookie lineman Marcell Dareus...Bills running back Fred Jackson second in NFL in rushing yards (103.0 ypg) and faces New York's 25th-ranked run defense (126.9 ypg)...Jets first in pass efficiency defense, however, and have yielded league-low four touchdowns through air...New York 0-2 in games following a bye week under head coach Rex Ryan.
Fast Fact: In two career games after a bye week, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez has completed just 47 percent (32-of-68) of his attempts and thrown for only one touchdown against four interceptions.
Prediction: Bills are no longer a novelty act, and will relish the opportunity to convince any remaining skeptics of their legitimacy against a Jets team that may not be as good as its public perception. Bills 31, Jets 28.
San Francisco (6-1) at Washington (3-4), Sunday, 1:00 (San Francisco -3.5)
Storylines: Red-hot 49ers try for first 7-1 start and six-game win streak since 1997, while slumping Redskins have lost three in a row after 3-1 beginning and limp home after 23-0 ousting by Buffalo in Toronto last Sunday, the first shutout in Mike Shanahan's 24 years as an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator...Ailing Washington to be without wide receiver Santana Moss (broken hand) for second straight week, while tight end Fred Davis and offensive tackle Trent Williams both questionable with ankle sprains...Defensive end Ray McDonald (hamstring) uncertain to play for San Francisco, which registered 20-10 home victory over Cleveland in Week 8 and is 3-0 on road this year...Redskins mustered only 178 total yards against Bills last weekend and allowed nine sacks of quarterback John Beck, who makes third straight consecutive start and goes up against 49ers defense yielding fewest points (15.3 ppg) and rushing yards (73.4 ypg) in the league...San Francisco also second overall with plus-10 turnover margin...49ers running back Frank Gore fourth in NFL in rushing yards (96.4 ypg) and has 125 or more in four straight contests...Washington has surrendered at least 138 yards on the ground all throughout current three-game skid...Redskins claimed running back Tashard Choice off waivers from Dallas on Monday, but won't play this week due to existing hamstring injury.
Fast Fact: Gore is one of only four running backs to rush for over 125 yards and a touchdown in four consecutive games, joining O.J. Simpson (1975), Terrell Davis (1998) and Larry Johnson (2005).
Prediction: 49ers are soaring, while the Redskins are sinking fast. 49ers 20, Redskins 6.
Seattle (2-5) at Dallas (3-4), Sunday, 1:00 (Dallas -12)
Storylines: Battle of teams that were handed lopsided losses in Week 8, with Cowboys routed by rival Philadelphia by a 34-7 count and Seahawks dealt 34-12 home defeat by Cincinnati...Dallas 2-0 against NFC West inhabitants this season, with wins over first-place San Francisco and St. Louis, while Seattle bested NFC East-leading New York Giants on the road in Week 5...Tarvaris Jackson (pectoral) expected to start at quarterback for Seahawks after throwing for career-high 323 yards off the bench against Bengals, while wide receiver Mike Williams (hamstring) probable as well...Running back Felix Jones (ankle) doubtful and cornerback Mike Jenkins (hamstring) out for Cowboys, while linebacker Sean Lee also unavailable after dislocating wrist versus Eagles...Cowboys fourth in NFL in rushing defense, but surrendered season-high 239 yards on the ground in loss to Philadelphia...Seattle 31st overall in both total offense (284.0 ypg) and rushing offense (77.7 ypg) and ran for just 61 yards against Cincinnati...Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware second overall with 12 sacks and had career-best four last week, and matches up with Seahawks offensive line that has given up league-high 28 quarterback takedowns...Seattle wide receivers Ben Obomanu (107 yards) and Sidney Rice (102) both topped 100 receiving yards in setback to Bengals.
Fast Fact: Seahawks have lost their last two games in Dallas by a combined score of 72-26 and haven't beaten the Cowboys as the visitor since a 17-14 triumph at Texas Stadium on Oct. 27, 2002.
Prediction: Though Cowboys have been incredibly erratic over the season's first half, they should have enough to vanquish a Seattle squad that's been consistently inept over the course of the last two months. Cowboys 26, Seahawks 17.
Tampa Bay (4-3) at New Orleans (5-3), Sunday, 1:00 (New Orleans -8.5)
Storylines: Key showdown between NFC South contenders, with Saints entering week with half-game advantage over Buccaneers and Atlanta for first place in division...Teams squared off in Tampa back on Oct. 16, with Bucs intercepting New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees three times en route to needed 26-20 victory...Tampa Bay has also left the Superdome with a win in last two campaigns, including a 23-13 decision over playoff-bound Saints in 2010 regular-season finale...New Orleans 3-0 at home so far this year and have averaged 44 points in those games, but coming off shocking 31-21 loss at previously-winless St. Louis this past Sunday...Buccaneers had Week 8 bye and have dropped two of last three tests, most recently a 24-18 setback to Chicago in London on Oct. 23...Tampa Bay running back LeGarette Blount probable after missing team's last two outings with knee sprain, but valued backup Earnest Graham (Achilles) placed on injured reserve during bye...Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle) and center and ex-Saint Jeff Faine (biceps) also expected to return for Bucs, but guard Jeremy Zuttah (knee) questionable...Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram could miss second straight game with bruised heel, while team put offensive tackle Charles Brown (hip) on IR Wednesday...Brees tops NFL in passing yards (2,746) and accumulated 383 in Week 6 meeting with Tampa, while tight end Jimmy Graham (7 catches, 124 yards) and wideout Marques Colston (7 catches, 118 yards) both eclipsed 100 receiving yards in loss...Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman threw for season-best 303 passing yards and two scores in last month's triumph over New Orleans, but was intercepted four times in defeat to Bears.
Fast Fact: Saints became only the second team since the 1970 merger to be shut out in the first half one week after scoring 60 or more points, with the Atlanta Falcons also doing so on Sept. 23, 1973.
Prediction: Saints' offense that has been nearly unstoppable at home this season bounces back strongly against a Tampa team that's been sloppy on the road at times. Saints 30, Buccaneers 24.
Cincinnati (5-2) at Tennessee (4-3), Sunday, 4:05 (Tennessee -3)
Storylines: Rising Bengals seeking first in-season five-game win streak since team's last Super Bowl appearance in 1998 and improved to 3-1 on road with 34-12 ousting of Seattle last Sunday...Titans moved to 3-1 at home with 27-10 verdict over hapless Indianapolis in Week 8, which halted club's two-game skid...Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson to play after serving one-game suspension for violating NFL's personal conduct policy against Seahawks, while tight end Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) and linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring) on track to return from injuries...Tight end Craig Stevens (ribs) probable for Tennessee, but veteran safety Chris Hope to remain sidelined with broken forearm...Bengals cornerback Adam Jones (hamstring) was 2005 first-round pick of Titans and will face former team for first time since being traded by Tennessee prior to 2008 campaign if active...Cincinnati fourth in NFL in total defense (297.4 ypg) and scoring defense (17.6 ppg) and allowing 85.4 rushing yards per game (2nd overall)...Titans last in league in rushing offense (68.9 ypg) and star running back Chris Johnson averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, while defense permitting 184.7 yards on the ground over last three contests...Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has 91.8 passer rating and 7-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio on road, while first-year wide receiver A.J. Green has scoring catch in all four of team's away games.
Fast Fact: Bengals recorded their first unbeaten October since 1975, a year the franchise finished with an 11-3 regular-season mark, after going 4-0 this past month.
Prediction: Tough Cincinnati defense answers the bell once again against inconsistent Tennessee team that's been devoid of playmakers on offensive side. Bengals 20, Titans 17.
Denver (2-5) at Oakland (4-3), Sunday, 4:05 (Oakland -8)
Storylines: Carson Palmer slated to make first start for Raiders since being acquired in blockbuster trade with Cincinnati on Oct. 18, while Tim Tebow to get nod under center for Broncos for third consecutive week despite struggling mightily in team's 45-10 shellacking by visiting Detroit last Sunday, in which former Heisman Trophy recipient completed just 18-of-39 passes and had two turnovers that resulted in Lions' touchdowns...Oakland had Week 8 bye and aiming to rebound from 28-0 home defeat to rival Kansas City on Oct. 23, with Palmer and fill-in starter Kyle Boller combining to throw six interceptions...Raiders edged Broncos by 23-20 score in Denver during Week 1 behind 150-yard outburst by running back Darren McFadden, and have won four straight in series...McFadden unlikely to play on Sunday due to sprained foot, however, but Broncos leading rusher Willis McGahee a possibility to return after missing Detroit game with fractured hand...Denver has won at Oakland Coliseum in six of past eight seasons, but handed 39-23 loss there last December and are 2-11 in last 13 away games...Oakland signed veteran wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on Tuesday and also brought in well-traveled cornerback Lito Sheppard during bye week...Raiders had eight-game win streak against fellow AFC West members snapped with Week 7 setback to Chiefs.
Fast Fact: Raiders have lost their last eight games following a bye week, with team's last victory under such conditions taking place during its last Super Bowl season in 2002.
Prediction: In a game that will be as ugly as Tebow's fluttering passes, Oakland's strong rushing attack and effective pass rush will provide the difference. Raiders 23, Broncos 17.
Green Bay (7-0) at San Diego (4-3), Sunday, 4:15 (Green Bay -5.5)
Storylines: Powerhouse Packers return from Week 8 bye and put franchise-record 13-game winning streak (including the postseason) on the line in matchup of division leaders, while stumbling Chargers have lost two straight after 4-1 start and fell into three-way tie for first place in AFC West following frustrating 23-20 overtime defeat at Kansas City on Monday...San Diego 3-0 at home so far in 2011 and has won five in a row at Qualcomm Stadium dating back to last season, while Green Bay 4-0 on road this year and came out on top in seventh straight away test with 33-27 decision over Minnesota on Oct. 23...Chargers running back Ryan Mathews doubtful after straining groin against Chiefs, but counterpart Mike Tolbert expected to return after missing Monday's loss with hamstring injury...Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (foot) and guard Kris Dielman (concussion) both questionable for San Diego, which signed pass-rusher Everette Brown on Tuesday...Offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) not likely to play for Packers and team placed rookie running back Alex Green (torn ACL) on injured reserve Monday, but nickel back Sam Shields (concussion) probable...Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads NFL with 125.7 passer rating, 20 touchdown throws and 71.5 completion percentage...Chargers triggerman Philip Rivers has tossed league-high 11 interceptions and faces Packers defense tied for second in NFL with 13 picks.
Fast Fact: Chargers are 5-1 in their last six games that followed a Monday night appearance and have averaged 32.5 points in those outings.
Prediction: Chargers are in desperation mode and will give defending champs their best shot, but are simply too error-prone to handle the remarkably proficient Packers. Packers 27, Chargers 20.
N.Y. Giants (5-2) at New England (5-2), Sunday, 4:15 (New England -8.5)
Storylines: First meeting between current division front-runners since Giants' memorable 17-14 upset over then-unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII that concluded 2007 season...New England also capped off unprecedented 16-0 regular season with thrilling 38-35 road win over New York in that year's finale...AFC East co-leading Patriots attempt to rebound from 25-17 loss at Pittsburgh last week in which team's third-ranked offense (437.1 ypg) was limited to season- low 213 yards, but have won 18 straight home games against NFC competition...Giants own two-game advantage atop NFC East and vie for third straight victory over AFC East tenant, having previously notched home verdicts over Buffalo (27-24) and Miami (20-17)...Matchup of top-tier quarterbacks, with New England's Tom Brady second in league in passer rating (104.4) and New York's Eli Manning third in that category (102.1)...Brady brings NFL-record 31-game regular-season home winning streak into contest...Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) both probable for Giants despite getting hurt against Dolphins, but team placed nickel back Justin Tryon (broken arm) on injured reserve Monday...Defensive end Shaun Ellis doubtful for Pats due to bruised ribs...New England second overall in passing offense (324.7 ypg), while New York has recorded league-best 26 sacks...Patriots last in NFL in pass defense (323.1 ypg) and have allowed over 300 yards through the air in all but one game this season.
Fast Fact: New England wide receiver Wes Welker's 57 receptions are tied with Denver's Rod Smith in 2001 for the second-highest individual total in NFL history through the first seven games of a season.
Prediction: Game will be more reminiscent of teams' last regular-season clash, with Manning putting up big numbers against New England's troublesome pass defense and Brady coming through in the clutch to preserve his impressive home streak. Patriots 35, Giants 31.
St. Louis (1-6) at Arizona (1-6), Sunday, 4:15 (Arizona -4)
Storylines: Meeting between NFC West bottom-feeders with question marks at the quarterback position, with Cardinals field general Kevin Kolb considered a game-time decision with a toe injury and A.J. Feeley a candidate to make third straight start for Rams in place of Sam Bradford (ankle)...Arizona in the midst of six-game losing streak and squandered 21-point first-half lead in stinging 30-27 setback at Baltimore last weekend, but have prevailed in eight of last nine bouts with St. Louis...Rams did post 19-6 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium last December, however, and registered long-awaited first triumph of 2011 with startling 31-21 upset of New Orleans in Week 8...St. Louis has dropped five consecutive road tests and 25 of its last 29 games as the visitor...Second-year pro John Skelton could fill in for Kolb, while tight end Todd Heap (hamstring) questionable and safety Kerry Rhodes (foot) out for Cardinals...Offensive tackle Jason Smith (concussion) and linebacker Brady Poppinga (calf) uncertain to play for Rams, but wideout Danario Alexander (hamstring) and cornerback Justin King (groin) both probable after missing last week...St. Louis last in NFL in rushing defense (165.6 ypg) and 30th in total yards allowed (392.1 ypg), but held explosive Saints to 283 yards and generated six sacks a week ago...Arizona mustered just 207 total yards (98 passing) and allowed six sacks of Kolb in loss to Ravens.
Fast Fact: Arizona's Patrick Peterson became the first Cardinals player since Vai Sikahema in 1986 to return two punts for touchdowns in the same season when the rookie cornerback took one back 82 yards against the Ravens last week.
Prediction: Rams regained some confidence with unexpected ousting of the Saints, while Cardinals' swagger may be shaken after last week's collapse. Rams 20, Cardinals 14.
Baltimore (5-2) at Pittsburgh (6-2), Sunday, 8:20 (Pittsburgh -3.5)
Storylines: AFC North heavyweights renew rivalry with much at stake, with Steelers entering showdown with half-game edge on Ravens for division lead...Baltimore routed Pittsburgh by 35-7 count at M&T Bank Stadium in season opener and shooting for first home-and-home sweep of Pittsburgh since 2006...Teams meeting at Heinz Field for first time since last January's AFC Divisional Playoffs, in which Steelers overcame 14-point halftime deficit for 31-24 win...Ravens had stunning rally of their own in most recent outing, fighting out of early 21-point hole to produce hard-earned 30-27 home victory over Arizona in Week 8...Pittsburgh extended current win streak to four games with 25-17 shutdown of visiting New England this past Sunday, club's seventh straight home triumph (including playoffs) dating back to last season...Steelers likely to be without outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and James Harrison (fractured eye socket), while wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (knee/personal) questionable and fellow wideout Hines Ward (ankle) probable...Baltimore leads NFL in total defense (263.3 ypg), one spot ahead of Pittsburgh (270.8 ypg), and forced seven turnovers in Week 1 blasting of Steelers...Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had five miscues (3 interceptions, 2 fumbles) in that loss, but has thrown for 726 yards in team's previous two wins and owns 11 touchdown passes over last four weeks...Ravens running back Ray Rice had 149 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in season-opening romp of Steelers and rushed for career-high three scores in comeback over Cardinals.
Fast Fact: Roethlisberger earned his 75th career victory as a starter with last week's triumph and reached the milestone in his 106th game. Only Tom Brady (99), Roger Staubach (99) and Ken Stabler (105) have gotten to that mark in fewer games during the Super Bowl era.
Prediction: Steelers' injuries on defense are concerning, but they'll be able to count on the sizzling Roethlisberger to avenge September's humiliating defeat. Steelers 23, Ravens 16.
Chicago (4-3) at Philadelphia (3-4), Monday, 8:30 (Philadelphia -8)
Storylines: Clash of 2010 division champions that are both on the upswing, with Eagles having won two straight following surprising 1-4 start and Bears having entered Week 8 bye with back-to-back victories...Philadelphia halted string of five consecutive home losses with 34-7 dismantling of rival Dallas last Sunday, with NFL's top-ranked rushing attack (179.9 ypg) piling up 239 yards on well-regarded Cowboys defense...Eagles also lead league in total offense (449.3 ypg) and averaging 479.8 yards over last four appearances...Philadelphia last in NFC in turnover margin (-7) and face Chicago defense that snared four interceptions in 24-18 triumph over Tampa Bay in London prior to bye week...Eagles running back LeSean McCoy tops NFL in rushing yards (107.7 ypg) and had career-best 185 against Dallas, while Bears counterpart Matt Forte first overall in yards from scrimmage (155.9 ypg) and aims for fourth 100-yard rushing effort in five games...Chicago averaging 160.5 rushing yards over past four tilts...Rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi (knee) and slot receiver Earl Bennett (chest) both on track to return from five-game absences...Philadelphia defense has allowed under 14 points in consecutive games for first time since 2008...Chicago has won three of last four meetings in series, including 31-26 decision at Soldier Field last season in which quarterback Jay Cutler threw four touchdown passes.
Fast Fact: The Bears have won after a bye week in four of the last five seasons under head coach Lovie Smith, with the lone loss over that stretch a 21-14 setback at Atlanta in 2009.
Prediction: Crafty Bears will keep Philadelphia's big-play ability to a minimum, forcing the Eagles to rely on their much-maligned defense and potent running game to grind out a methodical win. Eagles 20, Bears 14.