Week 9 marks the end of the first half of the season and records are starting to distinguish the contenders from the pretenders. That said, at least 25 teams feel they are still in the playoff hunt. Five games this week are division matchups that will start to clear up the those races. But there's a long way to go -- I bet you could make a case for four of the eight current division cellar-dwellers -- Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, New Orleans -- to make the playoffs.. There are a number of players in this week's "perfect storm," where their skills and the deficiencies of the opponent equal a big day. Also this week, I want to look closely at the rookie defenders who are making an impact.
1. Rookie QBs hit the road
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco have been the talk of the NFL. Last spring, the class of 2008 was described as a weak group but it simply wasn't true. Both rookie QBs were handed the keys to the car and have been driving their teams better than expected. The Falcons and Ravens head into the midway point with winning records and there is a solid chance both QBs will lead their teams to a 5-3 record at the midway mark. I will be watching as Ryan faces the Raiders and Flacco goes against the Browns.
|Chris McGrath / Getty Images|
|Ravens QB Joe Flacco looks to continue his impressive rookie season when Baltimore visits Cleveland.|
2. AFC East is on the rise
Everyone likes to talk about the strength of the NFC East or the NFC South, which is fine, but the AFC East is emerging as a division to be respected. The AFC East already is 17-11, going 5-2 against the NFC and 12-9 vs. the AFC. No AFC division has more wins overall, more wins against the NFC, or more wins against the AFC. None of the four teams has more than one loss in the division. The divisional race is going to go down to the wire. Keep your eye on the AFC East!
3. Turnover swing is major
By Week 9, it is time to pay attention to the turnover battle in the league. This week, there are four games where the turnover difference is greater than 10. The Browns have an advantage of 10 turnovers over the Ravens, the Giants are also a plus-10 over the Cowboys, the Eagles are a plus-11 over the Seahawks and the Dolphins are a plus-16 over the Broncos. Keep in mind an average NFL game usually has 11-12 offensive series per team and when a squad has a 10-plus margin in turnovers, it equates to an extra game of offense.
4. Perfect storms
Every week there are games where a player faces a team that doesn't matchup well because of its deficiencies. I like four quarterbacks this week to have big numbers.
Kyle Orton, Chicago: He faces the 32nd-ranked Lions defense at home and should throw for 300 yards.
Kurt Warner, Cardinals: He has great players to throw to and goes up against the 26th-ranked Rams pass defense.
Chad Pennington, Miami: He plays on the road against the 28th-ranked Broncos pass defense, which is missing CB Champ Bailey.
Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia: Even though he is on the road in Seattle, Patrick Kerney is probably out of the game so the pass rush is missing a key piece and the coverage is ranked 30th.
I expect all four of these throwers to close in on 300 yards passing.
5. Back in the nick of time
Al Harris, the outstanding Packers cornerback, should be back this week and Green Bay needs all hands on deck vs. the unbeaten Titans. The Colts have their backs to the wall heading into their matchup with the Patriots, so the availability of safety Bob Sanders couldn't come soon enough and the return of Joseph Addai gives the offense a chance to return to 2007 form. It's now or never for the Colts, who are four games behind the Titans and have just the eighth-best record in the AFC. The Bears need both corners Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman to be on the field with Lions receivers Calvin Johnson, Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald coming to town. The Bears are trying to keep up with the Packers and stay ahead of the Vikings with a win.
6. Solve the road problems
The Cardinals are 3-9 on the road under the leadership of Ken Whisenhunt. The Houston Texans are 0-3 away from Houston this season and their current winning streak is the result of three straight home games against teams that are 3-19. Tampa Bay and Atlanta both are 1-3 on the road this season, and if these teams really think the postseason is a realistic goal they better win this weekend.
7. Can they keep rolling?
We all know Tennessee is undefeated and on a 10-game winning streak dating back to last year. The other hot teams are Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, the New York Giants, New England, Pittsburgh and Washington -- all 3-1 in their last four games. Any team that goes 4-1 in their last five games as we head into November is a hot candidate to make the playoffs. I like the Bears, Browns, Giants, and Steelers to keep rolling.
|Matthew Stockman / Getty Images|
|Mike Holmgren has had a trying 2008 season, to say the least.|
8. Division games take center stage
Every coach will constantly talk about winning the division. The past few weeks have featured a limited number of division games but Week 9 sees a quick rise in the hated divisional matchups. Not many teams win their divisions with more than two divisional losses. The New York Jets at Buffalo game will leave the loser with two divisional losses and no wiggle room for the rest of the season.
9. Now or never for Jaguars, Seahawks
The Mike Holmgren era in Seattle is coming to an end and the 2008 season has been an embarrassment to his great career. Injuries have played a role but the bottom line is the Seahawks must win now or fade away. A few more losses by Seattle and the pressure on the 2009 head coach, Jim Mora, will be brutal to say the least. The Jaguars, meanwhile, were a preseason favorite to pass the Colts for the division title. It isn't happening that way, and now Jacksonville has a must-win at Cincinnati. The Jaguars should beat their next two opponents (Detroit is on deck), who have a combined 0-15 record.
10. Rookie defenders
We all know about the two rookie quarterbacks with winning records along with the running backs and wide receivers from the class of 2008 that are tearing up the NFL. How about the defensive rookies? Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo leads the team in tackles. Bucs corner Aqib Talib leads Tampa Bay in interceptions, and he will be on the same field this week as Kansas City corner Brandon Flowers, who leads the Chiefs in picks. Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton has a sack and 42 tackles. Panthers coach John Fox praises rookie DB Charles Godfrey every week. Finally, the Rams have to be excited about Chris Long. He already has four sacks and leads the defensive line in tackles.