The regular season bye weeks are over and it is officially time to defend the top of a division, make a push to the playoffs, or take a look at a few young players to get ready for 2008.
When you think about it, every team fits into one of these three categories. Can a team like the Colts defend their division lead? Can the Browns climb into the top six spots in the AFC and get a playoff berth? Is it time to see what JaMarcus Russell is all about in Oakland?
Every team in the league is concerned about how many healthy players they have left to finish the season the right way. With virtually no one left on the street to fill a roster spot, look for many teams to sign practice squad rookies for immediate duty. The general managers and head coaches who built up the back end of the roster last spring and chose wisely when they signed their eight man practice squads have the best chance to make it through the next seven weeks.
With all of that in mind, here are my top 10 issues I will be keeping an eye on this week:
|Chris Graythen / Getty Images|
|The Dolphins call on John Beck to attempt to deliver the team's first win of the season.|
1. So many quarterback changes
There seems to be more quarterback activity than I can remember at this point in the season in a long time. John Beck gets his first start for the Dolphins, Brodie Croyle goes for the Chiefs and they're still very much in the playoff hunt. We could see JaMarcus Russell in a small package of plays for the first time. Rex Grossman (Chicago), J.P. Losman (Buffalo), Kyle Boller (Baltimore) get a second chance to save their careers. David Garrard (Jacksonville) and Matt Schaub (Houston) are back from injuries while Trent Dilfer (San Francisco) and Vinnie Testaverde (Carolina) play because of injury. There's a lot riding on the arms and brains of a number of guys who haven't done it before or failed before. No matter how much you do in the off-season, it always comes down to the quarterback.
2. Can Simeon Rice really help the Colts?
The lose of defensive end Dwight Freeney is devastating to the Colts. Freeney's value didn't always show up in individual sacks, but his presence dictated where the protections went on every pass play and it provided players such as Robert Mathis tremendous opportunities to get to the quarterback. Will Simeon Rice help repair the damage done by the Freeney injury? Rice was the best on the street, and the Colts were lucky to get a guy in November with his credentials and relationship with Tony Dungy.
However, the Colts have a long way to go to solve this problem. Some say his shoulder isn't right, some say if he had anything left he would still be in Denver. I think if the Colts limit his exposure to mostly pass situations, then they will get some rush out of him. Keep in mind the Colts often play with a lead and opponents have already thrown 45 more passes than the Broncos opponents did. He should get 15 to 20 decent shots at rushing the passer. Indianapolis doesn't like to blitz and expects the four-man front to get to the quarterback. Rice will be one of the key players I will be watching this weekend.
3. 82 years of quarterback take the field in Green Bay
They say pro football is a young man's game. No one bothered to tell Brett Favre (38), who is leading the NFL in passing yards, or Vinny Testaverde (44). The two men will face off at Lambeau Field this week when the Panthers play the Packers. The combined age of these two quarterbacks is 82, the oldest ever by a starting quarterback tandem. Compare that to the Tennessee-Denver game where the combined age of the starting quarterbacks is 52, or the Washington-Dallas game where the combined age is 53.
Watch NFL Network's 2010 Pro Bowl selection show on Tuesday, Dec. 29 to see who made the cut. More ...
4. There seems to be a few "great" returners in the NFL
Last year, we had nine kickoff returns for a touchdown and the same number in 2005. With seven weeks to go this season, we already have 16 kickoff returns for scores and are on pace for 26. The Bears' Devon Hester is always the first name mentioned when it comes to dangerous returns, but it's time to mention Leon Washington (Jets) 3, Josh Cribbs (Cleveland) 2, Darren Sproles (San Diego) 1 -- plus a punt return for a score -- with Hester, who also has two punt return for scores. The NFL is averaging close to two kick and/or punt returns for a touchdown a week, and that makes for very exciting football. Cribbs has had a return of 30 yards or more in nine straight games.
5. Is this the week we see a helmet-to-helmet ejection?
Last week, the NFL sent a memo out to teams stating that the officials had the right to eject a player from a game for a dangerous play with the intent to injury when using his helmet. No one got thrown out of a game last week, but it's going to happen sooner or later. The playoff pressure is mounting and someone is going to take a shot he should not take, but will. Coaches are concerned about the amount of power the officials already have on the field, and this could be a big story if a star safety gets ejected in the first quarter of a game with playoff implications.
6. Always beware of a rematch game or a team coming off a shutout
Last week, there were eight rematch games and three of the teams that lost the first round of the home-and-home division series won and split for the season. It's hard to beat an NFL team twice in a season. Keep a close eye on St. Louis, Baltimore and Buffalo as they get a second chance against a division opponent this week. As for shutouts, two teams suffered the embarrassment of being blanked last week. Since 2002, 50 percent of the teams shut out one week win the following week. So, is it Minnesota or San Francisco that rights the ship this week?
7. Who has the best pass-rush tandem?
There was a time when the best pass-rush tandem was Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker down in Carolina, but they're nowhere to be found now. Jared Allen and Tamba Hali aren't bad with 12.5 sacks, but the top five tandems right now are all from the NFC.
|Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images|
|Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has had a resurgence of sorts, threatening to approach his career high of 13.5 sacks.|
5. Trent Cole and Juqua Thomas for the Eagles with 13 sacks.
4. Tommie Harris and Adewale Ogunleye for the Bears with 14 sacks.
3. Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware for the Cowboys with 14.5 sacks.
2. Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck for the Giants with 16 sacks.
1. The best tandem in the NFL is Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in Green Bay with 17.5 sacks.
Some teams, like the Titans, have three defensive linemen with five sacks each, while a team like the Giants have another 9.5 sacks from Michael Strahan and Mathias Kiwanuka. But when you watch the Packers' tandem crush the pocket and get after the quarterback, it's hard to argue that there is a better tandem in the league.
8. Will the AFC South and NFC East continue their dominance?
Have you noticed that the AFC South and NFC East are both 16-6 outside their division and are tied for the best non-division record in the NFL? All eight teams have winning records in non-division games. Well, six of the eight teams are playing out of the division this week, and if recent success holds up this should be another big weekend for these teams. There are tie-breaker implications for future playoff spots at stake too. The Giants meet the Lions, the Jaguars face off with the Chargers, and the Titans play the Broncos with playoff ramifications on the line and history on their side.
9. How hard is it to "make a run" this time of year?
It seems like all we hear this time of year is "it's time to make a run." By definition that means have a winning record in the second half of the year and make the playoffs. Keep in mind only 10 teams had winning records in the second half of the season last year. Three of those 10 (Green Bay, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh) made a run, but it was too little too late. Meanwhile, the Giants faded with a 2-6 record and still made the playoffs. Surprisingly, the Colts went 4-4 down the stretch and won the Super Bowl. For a few teams their record is padded enough that they don't have to make a run. For other teams, even a 6-2 finish won't be enough. This week should be the second step of the run and for teams like the Eagles who won last week, there is still a chance but it is now or never. Last year, they finished 6-2, so it can be done. A 3-5 start with a 6-2 finish is a 9-7 season and that should make it in the NFC.
10. It seems harder to win on the road than ever
Every team in the league has either three or four games left to play on the road this season. Outside of the Patriots, the other 31 teams really have to win away from home. At this point in the season only 10 teams have winning road records. The NFC West doesn't have a team with more than one road win. The biggest road-game concerns this weekend belong to Cleveland (1-3) heading into Baltimore, San Diego (1-3) heading across country to Jacksonville, Tampa Bay (1-3) heading up to Atlanta, and the Cardinals (1-4) flying east to Cincinnati. Unless these playoff hopefuls change their road behavior, their playoff dreams start to fade this week.