This is the last weekend of football before the turn for home in the NFL schedule. Next week starts the fourth quarter and there are more than 10 storylines that will occupy my attention as I watch the action. I will spend Sunday at CBS Sports, in a room with every game on simultaneously, in the company of Bill Cowher, Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason and Shannon Sharpe. It couldn't get much better than that but it also means I have to be organized before all the games kick off at 1 p.m. ET and then the next wave of games hit the screens at 4:15. Here are the 10 storylines that will be tops on my list as the weekend unfolds:
|Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images|
|Andy Reid's Eagles were 5-6 at this point last year and ran the table. Can they do it again?|
1. Which 5-6 teams make a playoff run?
Last year there were seven teams sitting at 5-6 at this point in the season. The Eagles were one of them. The Cowboys were in first place and the Giants were in second. Philadelphia had a backup QB on the field and ran the table to go 10-6 and win the division. This year there are nine teams in the same spot and once again the Eagles are one of them. At least one team is making a run starting this week. Strength of schedule would suggest the Vikings, Saints and Cardinals have the best chance. Keep your eye on all of the 5-6 teams as they play for their playoff lives this week.
2. The Giants vs. Devin Hester
Why anyone in the NFL kicks to Devin Hester is beyond me. The only time football resembles baseball is in this situation: Pitch around the guy. Treat him like Barry Bonds. So what if the punt or kick off goes out of bounds? It at least guarantees that Rex Grossman and the offense have to take the field. The Giants have the No. 8 defense in the NFL. Play to your strength. Don't wake up on Sunday and convince yourself you can contain this guy. He has 10 touchdowns in 27 games, all over 75 yards.
3. Can the Lions and Titans end their slides?
Barely a month ago, the Lions and Titans were two of the top stories in the NFL. But both teams have now lost three straight games and are heading the wrong way in the playoff race. Can either team turn around their fortunes before it is to late? The Titans should get Albert Haynesworth back and he is a big factor on defense. When he plays, his team gives up 15 points a game and don't need anything but a four-man rush to get after quarterbacks. When he's missing, as he has been for three games, his team gives up 32 points a game and must take chances to get to the QB. As for the Lions, the preseason guarantee of 10 wins by Jon Kitna looked like a lock when they were 6-2, but their remaining schedule and the fact that they are 6-5 now makes it look like a long shot.
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4. Eli Manning, Rex Grossman have a lot in common
Somewhere in pregame warm-ups, Eli Manning will shake hands with Rex Grossman and wish him good luck. That's what quarterbacks do in the NFL. These two young signal callers have a lot in common. Both are former first-round picks playing in big-city markets and both are the targets of incredible fan frustration. The guy who plays poorly in this game and leads his team to a loss will experience more public pressure than is imaginable for an athlete. Neither guy asked to be a first-round pick, neither guy can control the rest of the roster or the coaching decisions during the gameâ¦ yet both have the weight of the world on their shoulders this Sunday. Grossman was under center a year ago in the Super Bowl; Manning has led his team to the playoffs in two of his first three seasons and has them in position again -- but that really doesn't matter for the guy who loses this game.
5. Peterson returns
Young Adrian Peterson could have played last week, but the wisdom of head coach Brad Childress prevailed and he waited one more week. Now the Vikings sit with their eye on the playoffs and a win at home over the Lions puts them in the thick of the race. Peterson will split time with Chester Taylor, but my bet is he wants his full-time role back and he wants to win the NFL rushing title. Peterson could have one of those "super days" he had before he was injured.
6. Miami's best chance to win?
I was down in South Florida a month ago and Dolphins fans already were pointing to this game against the Jets as their best and maybe only chance to prevent an 0-16 season. Since that time, the Dolphins have simply run out of running backs, they have a rookie at quarterback and Zack Thomas still hasn't returned to the lineup. It's starting to look possible that the year a team matches the Dolphins' achievement of a perfect season, those very same Dolphins could go winless. I hope not, because I suffered through a 1-15 season once with the Jets, and I can't imagine anything worse. But of course, 0-16 would be.
7. Running wild
Denver and Oakland both love to run the ball on offense and both teams have terrible run defenses. Denver is ranked 29th against the run and the Raiders are 31st. I could easily see 400 yards or more on the ground in this game and it also means the game could be over in a lot less than three hours.
|Elsa / Getty Images|
|Tom Brady and the high-flying Patriots offense invade Baltimore on Monday night.|
8. Was Patriots' close call a blessing?
The Patriots looked human last week in a tight win over the Eagles. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin went on IR and there's no doubt the Patriot players and coaches looked at that game film a lot differently than they did than when they were winning games by 30 points. New England has already set a franchise record for points with 442 and they have a turnover swing of plus-27 compared to Monday night's opponent, Baltimore. The Pats average 42 points a game on the road and it wouldn't surprise me to see them hit their average.
9. Beware the rematch games
Rematch games are always tricky in the NFL. Beating division foes twice in one season isn't easy. Detroit beat the Vikings by three points in overtime earlier this season and now travels to Minnesota. The Jets beat the Dolphins by 3 and now travel to South Florida. Denver beat Oakland by 3 in overtime and now head into the Black Hole. Tennessee managed a 2-point win over Houston earlier this season and gets the Texans at home. Kansas City played its best game of the year in beating San Diego, 30-16, in California, but the Chiefs are a much different team right now. Tampa easily beat New Orleans, 31-14, in the first game but travel to the Saints without the services of QB Jeff Garcia. The Steelers handed Cincinnati a 24-13 defeat but the Bengals have won three of the last four in Pittsburgh. Finally, the Colts served Jacksonville notice with a 29-7 beating, but the Jags come into Indianapolis as a hot team and can tie for the division lead with a win. I would guess at least four of these rematch games go to the loser of the first game.
10. Can the Panthers, Rams or Dolphins finally win at home?
It's hard enough to win in the NFL and the one thing every team counts on is some kind of home-field advantage. The Rams, Panthers and Dolphins are all 0-5 at home and the fans are showing their disgust by joining the ever-growing army of no-shows. All three teams take the home turf this weekend and with thousands of empty seats, they have to find a way to bring the fans back into the stadium. With two more home games left on their schedules after this week, it's now or never to save the fans. Carolina has the 3-8 49ers coming in, the Rams have the 3-8 Falcons and Miami hosts the 2-9 Jets. Just get it done or deal with the consequences of more no-shows than anyone wants to count.