As the lone remaining unbeaten team at the halfway point of this 2011 campaign and the unquestioned midseason Most Valuable Player leading the way, there's little debate that the Green Bay Packers have to be considered the favorites to capture a second consecutive Super Bowl title right now.
History says it won't be so easy, however.
Ten different clubs have represented the NFC in the Big Game over the last decade and the conference hasn't had a repeat champion since the Packers accomplished the feat in 1996 and 1997, the back end of Brett Favre's remarkable run of three straight MVP awards. In fact, only two teams -- the St. Louis Rams and New York Giants -- have won the NFC more than once since Green Bay's back-to-back effort during the Clinton administration.
That trend will likely bring smiles to the faces of fans of the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, both of whom are currently in position to end painfully-long absences from the playoffs after putting together surprisingly excellent first halves. At 7-1, the reborn Miners appear to be a virtual lock to end a nine-year postseason drought and are nipping at the Packers' heels for the best record in the NFC, while the feisty Lions are on a pace that would send the perennial doormats into the conference tournament for the first time since 1999.
Then again, Green Bay did wind up as world champions in each of the four previous seasons the storied franchise started out with an 8-0 record (though none of those titles came during the Super Bowl era). And the last Super Bowl winner to begin the following year with eight straight wins, the 1998 Denver Broncos, also hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at that season's end.
So with all that in mind, let's take a closer look on how the NFC stacks up at the moment and provide a brief second-half analysis for each member:
THE FRONT-RUNNERS 1) Green Bay (8-0); 2) San Francisco (7-1); 3) N.Y. Giants (6-2); 4) New Orleans (6-3); 5) Detroit (6-2); 6) Chicago (5-3)
That's the order the teams would be in if the season were to end today, though it's not necessarily how they'll finish.
With a five-game cushion in the lousy NFC West with eight games to go, the 49ers seem to be the surest bet for postseason advancement, and overtaking the Packers for the top overall seed isn't out of the question when factoring in the remaining schedule. The Giants can also make a case for conference supremacy, as they'll visit San Francisco this week and have a home date with Green Bay lined up in early December. New York could just as easily be excluded from a playoff invite, however, considering the challenging second- half slate it will face (more on that later).
Count on the NFC South race going right down to the wire between the Saints and Atlanta, who will be squaring off in a crucial contest at the Georgia Dome on Sunday and also meet in New Orleans in Week 16. The loser of the battle also figures to bring some serious competition for the Lions and Bears (and conceivably the Packers as well) for the two Wild Card spots up for grabs.
THE CONTENDERS Atlanta (5-3), Dallas (4-4), Tampa Bay (4-4)
The Falcons, last season's No. 1 seed in the NFC, have righted the ship with three straight victories that includes a potentially weighty ousting of Detroit back in Week 7, and could be set up for a strong stretch run with five of their final five games at home.
The unpredictable Cowboys have an opportunity to make some headway on the Giants in the coming weeks, with a winnable home game with Buffalo next on the docket before matchups against opponents that are a combined 6-18 as we speak (Washington, Miami, Arizona). If Dallas gets through that sequence unscathed, that could set the stage for two pivotal matchups with New York in the last four weeks that will decide the NFC East.
Though Tampa Bay is well within striking distance of a playoff spot right now, the Buccaneers still have five road tests upcoming and two of their three remaining home games (Houston, Dallas) are tough. Not the easiest of paths for a young team that's also been wildly inconsistent. Consider them more of a dangerous spoiler than true playoff hopeful.
THE LONGSHOTS Philadelphia (3-5), Washington (3-5), Seattle (2-6)
The disappointing Eagles may have sealed their fate with Monday's costly home defeat to the Bears, as they've now lost to two of their main Wild Card competitors (Chicago and Atlanta) and are two games behind both in the standings. The expected Super Bowl threats are also three back of the Giants in the NFC East and still have to face their heated rivals on the road.
With a four-game losing streak, a glut of injuries and troubling instability at quarterback, the crumbling Redskins simply can't be taken seriously.
Since it's still too early to completely concede the NFC West to San Francisco, someone from the division gets to avoid the dubious bottom tier. The Seahawks have the best defense out of the other three entrants and play five of their last eight games at home, including a showdown with the 49ers on Christmas Eve, and are therefore the most plausible member of the group to pull off what would be a major coup.
THE NO-SHOTS Minnesota (2-6), Carolina (2-6), Arizona (2-6), St. Louis (1-7)
The exciting Panthers' future prospects are far better than their present situation in the rugged NFC South, while the Vikings reside in an even more formidable division and are also attempting to make strides with a rookie quarterback. The progression of Cam Newton and Christian Ponder will be the primary objectives of both clubs in the second half as they try to set a foundation for 2012.
Though neither the Cardinals nor the Rams have particularly daunting schedules over the final eight weeks, the only thing they'll be contending for is next year's No. 1 overall pick due to a multitude of problems.
TOUGHEST ROAD: New York Giants. The NFC East front-runners got a demanding six-game stretch off to a strong start with last week's big win at New England, but plenty of obstacles remain in Big Blue's path. The Giants still have road outings with San Francisco, New Orleans and Dallas as well as a Christmas Eve clash with their fellow in-stadium residents, the Jets, not to mention challenging home assignments with the Eagles, Packers and Cowboys. If they can get to the playoffs, they'll certainly have earned it.
EASIEST ROAD: Chicago. The overlooked Bears managed to survive a very tough first-half slate, but the remaining schedule should be less strenuous. Sure, the defending NFC North champs still have to go to Green Bay on Christmas Day, but the Packers could very well have the conference's top seed wrapped up by that point. There's also four upcoming bouts with the mediocre AFC West and games against Seattle and Minnesota, and none of those opponents can be characterized as heavyweights. Don't be shocked if it's the Bears and not the more-touted Lions as the division's leading candidate for a Wild Card berth.
GAMES YOU WON'T WANT TO MISS N.Y. Giants at San Francisco (Nov. 13) Detroit at Chicago (Nov. 13) Green Bay at Detroit (Nov. 24) N.Y. Giants at New Orleans (Nov. 28) Green Bay at N.Y. Giants (Dec. 4) N.Y. Giants at Dallas (Dec. 11) Chicago at Green Bay (Dec. 25) Atlanta at New Orleans (Dec. 26) Detroit at Green Bay (Jan. 1)
THE PROJECTED FINISH 1) Green Bay (14-2); 2) San Francisco (12-4); 3) New Orleans (11-5); 4) N.Y. Giants (10-6); 5) Chicago (12-4); 6) Atlanta (11-5)
A furious finish could leave at least one deserving team out in the cold, and in this scenario it's the Lions that are the jilted ones. Detroit's home loss to the Falcons three weeks back may loom very large down the road from a tie- breaker standpoint, and Chicago seems to have a layout more conducive to putting forth a big second-half run. I'm also operating under the theory that the Lions have been rubbing some of their peers the wrong way with their brash, play-through-the-whistle style, and that opponents will be geared up to give their feel-good story a bitter ending. It wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the Packers go all-out to beat Detroit in the season finale even if their playoff positioning is set in stone, especially if the Lions are able to knock Green Bay off on Thanksgiving.
With the Giants' torturous schedule and the Saints and Falcons having some catching up to do, the Packers and 49ers appear to have the inside track at the two byes. The Eagles could be primed for a strong late push if they can get it together, but still may have too dug themselves a hole too big to climb out of.
NFL POWER POLL
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SUICIDE POOL PIX
2. Philadelphia (vs. Arizona) -- Eagles are in absolute do-or-die mode right now, and less-talented Cardinals are making a cross-country trip probably without former Philadelphia quarterback prodigy Kevin Kolb.
3. Baltimore (at Seattle) -- Don't have the utmost confidence in this one, as Ravens could be primed for a letdown off a huge win in Pittsburgh. Baltimore's veteran defense should still be able to stop the punchless Seahawks in their tracks, though.
Finally produced a respectable record against the spread last week in spite of going a lackluster 7-7 in selecting outright winners, as my 8-6 mark versus the line was my best performance in quite some time. I'm still just 59-67-4 (.469) when factoring in the Vegas numbers for the season to go along with an 80-50 (.615) composite record straight-up. Hopefully both those numbers will improve in the second half.
Oakland (4-4) at San Diego (4-4), Thursday, 8:20 (San Diego -7)
Storylines: NFL's second-half Thursday night schedule opener between co-AFC West leaders on downward trends, with Chargers having dropped three straight following 4-1 start and Raiders coming off back-to-back home defeats to division members Kansas City (28-0) and Denver (38-24)...San Diego had four- game home win streak snapped with 45-38 setback to still-unbeaten Green Bay last Sunday, in which Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns but was intercepted a career-worst three times...Rivers has NFL-high 14 picks on the season, while Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer has been intercepted six times in six quarters since joining club in Oct. 18 trade with Cincinnati...Raiders running back Darren McFadden expected to miss second straight game with foot sprain, while cornerback Chris Johnson (hamstring) also doubtful for Oakland and linebacker Rolando McClain (ankle), safety Michael Huff (ankle) and center Samson Satele (knee) all questionable...Chargers leading rusher Ryan Mathews on track to return after sitting out Green Bay game with groin strain, but wide receiver Malcom Floyd (hip) and guard Kris Dielman (concussion) ruled out and linebacker Shaun Phillips (foot) unlikely to play...San Diego had won 13 straight times against Raiders prior to pair of Oakland victories last season, including 28-13 triumph at Qualcomm Stadium in December that halted club's seven-game road skid in series...Raiders 29th overall in run defense and allowed 299 rushing yards to Broncos last week...Chargers minus-eight in turnover margin this season, while Oakland minus-five in that category.
Fast Fact: Chargers had won eight straight November games prior to last week's loss and are 28-8 all-time under head coach Norv Turner in regular-season play after Nov. 1.
Prediction: Chargers finally find an opponent as mistake-prone as themselves and will take advantage under must-win conditions. Chargers 27, Raiders 17.
Arizona (2-6) at Philadelphia (3-5), Sunday, 1:00 (Philadelphia -14)
Storylines: First meeting between teams since offseason trade that sent quarterback Kevin Kolb to Cardinals for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick, though Kolb likely to miss second straight week with torn ligament in his toe...Second-year pro John Skelton expected to start under center for Arizona and helped club snap six-game losing skid with 222- yard performance in 19-13 overtime win over St. Louis last Sunday...Defending NFC East champion Eagles had two-game win streak halted with 30-24 loss to Chicago on Monday, team's sixth defeat in last seven home tests...Cardinals are 0-4 on road this season and have dropped 11 in a row as the visitor...Linebacker Joey Porter (knee), safety Kerry Rhodes (foot) and cornerback Michael Adams (neck) also expected to sit out for Arizona, while Philadelphia guard Evan Mathis (toe) doubtful and safety Nate Allen (concussion) questionable...Eagles lead NFL in rushing yards (172.3 ypg) and rank third in total offense (434.4 ypg), but were held to season-low 330 yards by Bears...Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy tops league with 825 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns (9 rushing, 2 receiving), and has scored in every game this year...Cardinals 28th in both total defense (389.8 ypg) and against the pass (272.0 ypg)...Arizona rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson averaging NFL- best 21.8 yards per punt return and had game-winning 99-yard score in overtime against Rams...Clubs last faced off in 2008 NFC Championship, a 32-25 Arizona triumph that sent Cards to first-ever Super Bowl.
Fast Fact: Peterson's touchdown last week was his third punt-return score of the season, making him the first player in NFL history to record that many in his first eight career games.
Prediction: Eagles will make enough mistakes to allow the Cardinals to hang around, but Arizona's troublesome defense isn't good enough to pull off the upset. Eagles 27, Cardinals 17.
Buffalo (5-3) at Dallas (4-4), Sunday, 1:00 (Dallas -5.5)
Storylines: Bills head coach Chan Gailey served in same capacity for Cowboys from 1998-99 and opposes onetime employers for first time in current position...Buffalo tied with New England and New York Jets for first place in AFC East, but have lost two of three since 4-1 start and coming off 27-11 home defeat to Jets last week...Dallas rebounded from 34-7 loss at rival Philadelphia in Week 8 with 23-13 home decision over Seattle last Sunday and is 3-1 at Cowboys Stadium this year...Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin ruled out after re-injuring hamstring against Seahawks, but linebacker Sean Lee (wrist) a possibility to return after sitting out last week's win...Dallas running back Felix Jones expected to miss fourth straight game with ankle sprain, though rookie replacement DeMarco Murray has rushed for 466 yards in his absence and had 135 versus Seahawks...Offensive tackle Demetrius Bell (shoulder) out for Bills and team placed defensive tackle Kyle Williams (foot) on injured reserve Tuesday while signing kicker Dave Rayner, who will take over for ailing regular Rian Lindell (shoulder)...Buffalo tied for first in AFC in scoring (27.8 ypg) and leads conference with 15 interceptions and plus- eight turnover margin...Bills running back Fred Jackson third in league in rushing yards (803) and faces Dallas defense that's allowed 401 yards on the ground the past two weeks.
Fast Fact: Murray, who rushed for a franchise-record 253 yards in a Week 7 win over St. Louis, joins Denver's Mike Anderson (2000) as the only rookies in NFL history to compile a 250-yard rushing game and a 135-yard outing within a three-week span.
Prediction: Bills' diverse offense will give the Cowboys trouble, but defense that lacks a pass rush won't prevent Tony Romo from having a big day. Cowboys 27, Bills 24.
Denver (3-5) at Kansas City (4-4), Sunday, 1:00 (Kansas City -3)
Storylines: Important matchup in tightly-bunched AFC West, with Chiefs entering week in three-way deadlock with Oakland and San Diego for first place and Broncos one game off the pace...Kansas City had string of four straight victories snapped with ugly 31-3 home loss to previously-winless Miami last week, but has bested Denver at Arrowhead Stadium in six of last eight seasons and handed Broncos a 10-6 loss there last year...Broncos 2-1 since inserting young quarterback Tim Tebow into starting lineup and racked up 299 rushing yards in 38-24 triumph at rival Oakland in Week 9, with Tebow running for career-best 118 yards and running back Willis McGahee amassing 163 yards and two touchdowns...Team is averaging 223.7 rushing yards in Tebow's three starts...Chiefs wideout Dwayne Bowe had career-high 186 receiving yards in 49-29 loss at Denver last November, while counterpart Steve Breaston recorded season-best 115 yards on seven catches against Dolphins...Safety Jon McGraw (shoulder) and nickel back Javier Arenas (ankle) both questionable for Kansas City after missing last week's loss...Chiefs are 9-3 at Arrowhead Stadium since start of 2010 campaign...Denver 31st overall in scoring defense (28.0 ppg) and pass efficiency defense, but intercepted Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer three times last Sunday.
Fast Fact: Tebow became the first quarterback to rush for 100 yards and throw two touchdown passes without an interception in a game since Michael Vick accomplished the feat with Atlanta at the New York Giants on Nov. 21, 2004.
Prediction: May take some time to adjust to Denver's unique read-option offense, but better-balanced Chiefs will eventually render Tebow and the Broncos one-dimensional. Chiefs 23, Broncos 17.
Houston (6-3) at Tampa Bay (4-4), Sunday, 1:00 (Houston -3)
Storylines: AFC South-leading Texans aim for first four-game winning streak since end of 2009 season and moved three games above .500 for first time in franchise history following 30-12 rout of Cleveland last Sunday...Buccaneers have lost two in a row and fell back in NFC South race with 27-16 defeat at front-running New Orleans in Week 9, but have won three straight at Raymond James Stadium since season-opening setback to Detroit...Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson has missed team's last five games with hamstring injury and uncertain to return this week, while safety Danieal Manning (leg) definitely out and defensive end Antonio Smith (shoulder) probable...Tampa Bay placed defensive tackle Gerald McCoy on injured reserve Tuesday after tearing biceps against Saints, while claiming enigmatic defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth off waivers from Patriots on Wednesday...Texans second in NFL in rushing offense (155.1 ypg) and compiled club record 261 yards on the ground last week, with backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate both eclipsing 100-yard mark against Browns...Buccaneers 26th overall in run defense (132.4 ypg) and have surrendered 372 rushing yards over last two losses...Houston also leads league in total defense (274.0 ypg) and rank second against the pass, while yielding just 17.4 points per game (3rd overall).
Fast Fact: Texans are outscoring the opposition by a 71-16 margin in the first quarter this season and have led after the opening period in all but one of their nine games.
Prediction: Texans are clicking in all phases right now, something the inconsistent Bucs have failed to do just about all season long. Texans 23, Buccaneers 16.
Jacksonville (2-6) at Indianapolis (0-9), Sunday, 1:00 (Jacksonville -3)
Storylines: Clash of AFC South's bottom-tier teams, with lowly Colts still in search of initial victory of 2011 and trying to avoid first 0-10 start since 1997...Jaguars have dropped six of seven since season-opening win over Tennessee and entered Week 9 bye off 24-14 road setback to division-leading Houston on Oct. 30...Indianapolis' struggles continued with 31-7 blasting by visiting Atlanta last Sunday in which club mustered just 186 total yards...Game contains two of NFL's least productive offenses, with Jacksonville last in scoring (12.3 ppg), total yards (242.6 ypg) and passing yards (123.6 ppg) and Colts 31st in total offense (282.8 ypg) and 30th in points scored (14.2 ppg)...Indianapolis also permitting league-worst 31.4 points per game and rank 31st in both total defense (406.1 ypg) and against the run (146.1 ypg)...Jaguars 0-4 on road this season and 2-8 all-time in Indianapolis, and left with 34-24 loss at Lucas Oil Stadium last December...Colts to be without tight ends Dallas Clark (leg) and Brody Eldridge (hand) this week, while running back Joseph Addai questionable with lingering hamstring issue...Jacksonville claimed wide receiver Brian Robiskie off waivers from Cleveland and placed wideout Mike Sims-Walker (knee) on injured reserve during bye week...Indianapolis signed cornerback Morgan Trent and waived defensive tackle Dan Muir on Tuesday...Jaguars linebacker Clint Session spent first four NFL seasons with Colts from 2007-10 and faces former team for first time.
Fast Fact: The Colts' 24-point loss to the Falcons was the team's most lopsided home defeat since a 31-3 ousting by Seattle on Sept. 14, 1997.
Prediction: Colts finally find an opponent with a lousier offense than they have, plus they've got to win sometime, right? Colts 17, Jaguars 13.
New Orleans (6-3) at Atlanta (5-3), Sunday, 1:00 (New Orleans -1)
Storylines: Pivotal showdown between NFC South's top two teams, with Saints maintaining half-game edge on Falcons with 27-16 home victory over fellow division inhabitant Tampa Bay last week...Atlanta riding three-game win streak and returns home off 31-7 crushing of hapless Indianapolis in Week 9...New Orleans has prevailed in four of last five visits to Georgia Dome, including 17-14 triumph last December, but has lost two most recent outings on the road...Saints hopeful to have rookie running back Mark Ingram back from two- game absence due to bruised heel, but linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) and cornerback Tracy Porter (neck) both questionable...Offensive tackle Sam Baker (back) out for Falcons...New Orleans tops NFL in total offense (445.1 ypg) and second overall in both scoring (31.9 ppg) and passing yards (319.1 ypg), while quarterback Drew Brees (3,004 yards) became first player in league history to surpass 3,000 yards in season's first nine games in last week's win...Falcons running back Michael Turner averaging 110.7 rushing yards during club's win streak, while rookie wide receiver Julio Jones had touchdown catches of 80 and 50 yards in rout of Colts...Atlanta defense has allowed 224.5 yards over team's last two wins and held Indianapolis to 186 last Sunday.
Fast Fact: With last week's performance, Jones became the first rookie with two or touchdown receptions of 50 or more yards since Minnesota's Randy Moss had three such catches in a Thanksgiving Day win at Dallas on Nov. 26, 1998.
Prediction: Falcons' running game and defense have been very good lately, and Saints don't seem to be as efficient playing on the road. Falcons 35, Saints 27.
Pittsburgh (6-3) at Cincinnati (6-2), Sunday, 1:00 (Pittsburgh -3)
Storylines: Red-hot Bengals tied with Baltimore for first place in competitive AFC North and enter critical divisional tilt having won five straight contests, team's longest win streak since six-game run in 1988, while defending conference champion Steelers half-game behind in the standings following 23-20 home loss to Ravens in final seconds last week...Cincinnati extended current tear with 24-17 decision at Tennessee this past Sunday behind career-best three touchdown passes from rookie quarterback Andy Dalton...Pittsburgh swept 2010 season series between teams, including 27-21 triumph at Paul Brown Stadium, and has recorded victories in eight of last nine stops in Cincinnati...Two of NFL's top defenses to be on display, as Steelers stand third in both total yards allowed (280.2 ypg) and pass defense (184.7 ypg) and Bengals second against the run (84.5 ypg) and fourth in total defense (301.3 ypg)...Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (knee) slated to miss second straight week, while inside linebacker James Farrior (calf) questionable...Veteran wide receiver Hines Ward probable for Pittsburgh, however, after leaving Baltimore game with head injury...Linebacker Rey Maualuga (ankle) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) both expected back from multi-week absences for Cincinnati...Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger set team record with third straight 300-yard passing game last week, while linebacker James Harrison registered three sacks and a forced fumble against Baltimore in first game back from eye injury.
Fast Fact: Dalton's 12 touchdown passes are the most by a rookie quarterback through the first eight games of a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Prediction: Though Dalton's been uncommonly good as a rookie, an angry Pittsburgh defense will be the best he's seen to date. Steelers 20, Bengals 17.
St. Louis (1-7) at Cleveland (3-5), Sunday, 1:00 (Cleveland -3)
Storylines: First-year Browns head coach Pat Shurmur faces St. Louis team he spent previous two seasons as offensive coordinator for under Steve Spagnuolo...Matchup of struggling squads, with Cleveland having dropped four of five after encouraging 2-1 start and Rams own NFC's worst record at 1-7...Browns suffered second straight loss with 30-12 defeat at Houston in which team managed just 172 total yards, and top running backs Peyton Hillis (hamstring) and Montario Hardesty (calf) both out for second consecutive week...Wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (concussion) and safety T.J. Ward (foot) also likely to sit out for Cleveland, while offensive tackle Tony Pashos (knee) questionable...Wide receiver Mark Clayton (knee) set to make season debut for St. Louis, which sustained tough 19-13 overtime loss at Arizona in Week 9, after being activated off physically unable to perform list on Wednesday, but tight end Lance Kendricks (foot) and wideout Danario Alexander (hamstring) both doubtful and team placed rookie receiver Greg Salas (broken leg) on injured reserve Tuesday...Rams running back Steven Jackson had 130 rushing yards against Cardinals and faces Browns' 30th-ranked run defense that surrendered 261 yards on the ground to Texans last week...Cleveland also 30th overall in total offense (289.0 ypg), 29th in scoring (14.9 ppg) and 31st in rushing yards (82.1 ypg), while St. Louis averaging 12.5 points per game (31st overall) and last in NFL in run defense (153.6 ypg).
Fast Fact: In addition to their time together with the Rams, Shurmur and Spagnuolo both served as assistants on Andy Reid's staff in Philadelphia for eight seasons from 1999-2006.
Prediction: Neither team inspires much confidence, but Browns do at least have a respectable defense and Rams have been awful on the road. Browns 21, Rams 16.
Tennessee (4-4) at Carolina (2-6), Sunday, 1:00 (Carolina -3)
Storylines: Struggling Titans have lost three of four since 3-1 start and dealt 24-17 home defeat to upstart Cincinnati last week, while rebuilding Panthers handed fourth loss in last five tests with 24-21 setback to visiting Minnesota prior to Week 9 bye...Wide receiver Nate Washington (hip) and tight end Jared Cook (knee) both probable for Tennessee despite incurring minor injuries last Sunday...Improved Carolina offense ranks fifth in NFL in both total yards (415.1 ypg) and passing yards (285.5 ypg), while wideout Steve Smith second in the league in receiving yards (918) and averaging 20 yards per catch...Panthers quarterback Cam Newton leads all rookies in passing yards (2,390) and threw for career-high three touchdowns in Oct. 30 loss to Vikings...Titans averaging league-low 70 rushing yards per game and managed just 78 yards against Bengals last week, while star running back Chris Johnson averaging only 3.0 yards per carry...Carolina just 27th in rushing defense (133.1 ypg), however, and have given up at least 139 yards on the ground in five straight games...Panthers activated rookie cornerback Brandon Hogan (knee) from the physically unable to perform list and waived defensive tackle Ronald Fields on Wednesday...Tennessee has won 12 of last 13 games against NFC competition.
Fast Fact: The Panthers are 1-2 all-time against the Tennessee franchise, with the lone win taking place against the then-Houston Oilers at the Astrodome on Nov. 24, 1996.
Prediction: Johnson finally breaks out against Carolina's porous defense, while Newton gets outdueled by wily veteran Matt Hasselbeck in a game the Titans need to have. Titans 24, Panthers 20.
Washington (3-5) at Miami (1-7), Sunday, 1:00 (Miami -4)
Storylines: Dolphins halted 10-game losing streak dating back to last season with 31-3 waxing of Kansas City last week and now try to end string of seven straight defeats at Sun Life Stadium, where team hasn't won since Week 10 of 2010 campaign and is 1-12 in last 13 outings...Reeling Redskins suffered fourth consecutive loss with 19-11 home setback to San Francisco last Sunday and have scored just 44 points during skid...John Beck to make fourth straight start at quarterback for Washington and was second-round pick of Miami in 2007, starting four games for Dolphins as a rookie...Miami signal-caller Matt Moore named AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday after throwing for 244 yards and three scores against Chiefs...Running back Tashard Choice (hamstring), claimed off waivers from Dallas on Oct. 31, expected to make Redskins debut this week, but wide receiver Santana Moss still sidelined with broken hand...Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis served team-issued one-game suspension last Sunday, but questionable to play due to ongoing hamstring injury...Washington waived veteran wide receiver Donte Stallworth on Tuesday and signed defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer and offensive tackle Tyler Polumbus during week...Redskins rookie running back Roy Helu had franchise- record 14 catches for 105 yards in loss to 49ers...Washington defense has allowed 160.8 rushing yards during team's four-game slide.
Fast Fact: Dolphins are 10-5 in November games in head coach Tony Sparano's four-year tenure with the organization.
Prediction: Dolphins have some restored confidence after last week's breakthrough, while crumbling Redskins have looked lost for quite some time now. Dolphins 16, Redskins 10.
Baltimore (6-2) at Seattle (2-6), Sunday, 4:05 (Baltimore -7)
Storylines: Ravens make second-ever appearance at CenturyLink Field and fly in off rousing 23-20 road victory over rival Pittsburgh last Sunday, in which quarterback Joe Flacco threw go-ahead touchdown pass to rookie receiver Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining to give team share of AFC North lead with surprising Cincinnati...Seahawks have lost three straight games after 23-13 besting by Dallas in Week 9 and face Baltimore's second-ranked scoring defense (16.3 ypg) having mustered just 28 points over that span...Ravens also second overall in total defense (279.4 ypg) and third against the run (86.8 ypg)...Seattle just 30th in the league in rushing offense (88.3 ypg) but piled up season-best 162 yards on the ground against Cowboys, with top back Marshawn Lynch running for 135 yards on 23 carries...Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (quadriceps) probable for Baltimore, but wide receiver Lee Evans expected to miss seventh straight game with ankle injury...Wide receiver Sidney Rice (foot) for Seahawks, while team activated fellow wideout Deon Butler (broken leg) from physically unable to perform list on Tuesday...Ravens converted 14- of-21 third-down opportunities in win over Steelers...Seattle second in the NFL in penalties (70) and has been flagged 21 times for 168 yards in last two losses.
Fast Fact: Ravens have won five straight games against NFC opponents and are 10-4 against the conference under head coach John Harbaugh.
Prediction: Ravens' experience and Seattle's non-threatening offense prevents AFC North co-leaders from stumbling in a potential trap game. Ravens 19, Seahawks 13.
Detroit (6-2) at Chicago (5-3), Sunday, 4:15 (Chicago -3)
Storylines: NFC North grudge match with potential playoff ramifications down the road, as surging Bears moved one game behind Lions for conference's top Wild Card berth with key 20-14 road victory at Philadelphia on Monday...Teams faced off in Detroit on Oct. 10, with Lions coming away with 24-13 triumph behind 163-yard rushing effort from running back Jahvid Best and five-catch, 130-yard performance from star wide receiver Calvin Johnson...Detroit has lost two of three since, but entered Week 9 bye off 45-10 domination of Denver on Oct. 30, and likely won't have Best for a third straight game due to lingering concussion symptoms...Lions brought back Kevin Smith, team's leading rusher in 2008 and 2009, on Monday while also signing veteran guard Leonard Davis...Chicago wide receiver Devin Hester probable despite hurting ankle against Eagles, but rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi still sidelined with knee injury...Detroit 4-0 on road in 2011 and has won six straight as visitor dating back to last year, but has lost in five of last six visits to Soldier Field and handed controversial 19-14 defeat there in 2010 season opener...Chicago 3-1 at home this season and has won three straight since Week 5 besting by Lions...Bears defense allowing just 67.3 rushing yards over current streak and held potent Philadelphia offense to season-low 330 total yards on Monday.
Fast Fact: The Lions' last victory at Soldier Field was a 16-7 decision in 2007 under then-head coach Rod Marinelli, now the Bears' defensive coordinator.
Prediction: Bears feel they're not getting enough respect and will be out for payback against a Detroit team that may be getting a bit too much recognition for its achievements. Bears 26, Lions 20.
N.Y. Giants (6-2) at San Francisco (7-1), Sunday, 4:15 (San Francisco -3.5)
Storylines: Battle between NFC division leaders that are both on a roll, with revitalized 49ers posting sixth straight victory -- team's longest streak since 1997 -- with 19-11 road decision over Washington last Sunday and Giants rallying for 24-20 decision at New England in Week 9 for third straight triumph...New York topped the Patriots despite being without leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and top wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (hamstring), but Nicks on track to return this week and Bradshaw a question mark...Giants rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara may make NFL debut as well Sunday after missing all season with fractured foot...San Francisco running back Frank Gore probable with mild ankle sprain and became first player in team history with five consecutive 100-yard rushing games with 107-yard effort against Redskins...Niners defense yielding league-low 70.8 rushing yards per game and hasn't allowed an individual over 100 yards in 30 straight contests, longest active streak in the NFL, or a rushing touchdown this season...New York quarterback Eli Manning fifth in NFL in passer rating (98.8) and has league- best 121.7 rating in fourth quarter...Manning led team to third fourth-quarter comeback in 2011 by throwing for two touchdowns in final three-plus minutes versus Patriots...San Francisco second in NFL with plus-12 turnover margin, while quarterback Alex Smith has just two interceptions on the season.
Fast Fact: Manning enters this week having started 111 consecutive regular- season games, tied with New England's Tom Brady for the fourth-longest streak by a quarterback in NFL history.
Prediction: Niners have been wildly successful by running the football and playing stout defense, but Manning and the Giants will provide a stern test in both categories. Giants 21, 49ers 17.
New England (5-3) at N.Y. Jets (5-3), Sunday, 8:20 (N.Y. Jets -1.5)
Storylines: Heated AFC East rivals go toe-to-toe for second time this season, with Jets seeking to avenge 30-21 road loss to Patriots in Week 5, and both teams tied with Buffalo for first place in division...New England attempting to avoid first three-game losing streak since 2002 after following up 25-17 defeat at Pittsburgh on Oct. 30 with 24-20 home edging by New York Giants last Sunday, in which opponent scored game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left...Resurgent Jets have won three in a row after impressive 27-11 road decision over Bills last week, in which defense allowed just 287 total yards and forced three turnovers, and have topped Pats at home in each of head coach Rex Ryan's first two seasons...Running back Shonn Greene and tight end Dustin Keller both probable for Jets despite sustaining head injuries against Bills, while veteran back Kevin Faulk (knee) expected to play for Patriots...New England linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) doubtful, however, while club placed safety Josh Barrett (calf) on injured reserve while also waiving former All- Pro defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth during week...Patriots averaging NFL- best 325.1 passing yards per game and rank second in total offense (437.3 ypg), and rolled up 446 total yards on Jets in last month's meeting...Jets lead league in pass efficiency defense and tied for third with 13 interceptions, but allowed New England running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to rush for career-best 136 yards in teams' earlier encounter...Patriots last in NFL in pass defense (314.0 ypg), but held Jets to just 158 net yards through the air back in Week 5.
Fast Fact: Patriots' defense has allowed a league-high 42 passing plays of 20 or more yards or more this season, though just two of those completions have resulted in touchdowns.
Prediction: Determined and confident Jets are more than capable of extending the surprising funk New England's usually-devastating offense has been in over the past month. Jets 28, Patriots 20.
Minnesota (2-6) at Green Bay (8-0), Monday, 8:30 (Green Bay -13.5)
Storylines: Prolific Packers set sights on extending franchise-record winning streak to 15 games (including postseason) and fourth straight victory over Vikings, having topped Minnesota by a 33-27 count at the Metrodome on Oct. 23...Vikings bounced back with 24-21 road decision over Carolina the following Sunday, giving rookie quarterback Christian Ponder first career win, and return from Week 9 bye...Green Bay coming off 45-38 outlasting of San Diego last week behind 21-of-26, 247-yard, four-touchdown performance by quarterback and leading MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers...Packers earned 28-24 verdict over Vikes at Lambeau Field last season and have won four of last five home matchups with Minnesota...Cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) slated to return from four-game absence for Vikings, but counterpart Chris Cook to remain away from team due to recent felony assault arrest and guard Anthony Herrera (knee) ruled out for Monday's tilt...Offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) to miss fourth straight game for Packers...Green Bay averaging NFL-best 34.4 points per game and ranks third in passing offense (314.4 ypg), while Rodgers tops all signal-callers in quarterback rating (129.1), completion percentage (72.5) and touchdown passes (24) and threw for 335 yards and three scores in earlier win over Minnesota...Vikings fourth overall in rushing offense (150.4 ypg) and ran for 218 yards in Week 7 loss to Packers, with All-Pro back Adrian Peterson ripping off season-best 175 yards and a touchdown.
Fast Fact: Rodgers is the first quarterback in NFL history to accumulate over 2,600 passing yards and throw for at least 24 touchdowns over the first eight games of a season.
Prediction: Vikings haven't been able to slow down any team with a semblance of a passing game, so it'd be a stretch to believe they'll have much of a chance against the incomparable Rodgers. Packers 37, Vikings 20.