Week 9 is halftime in the minds of NFL coaches, who see the season in four quarters. Now is the time to look at mid-season adjustments. As Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said to me this week, "Hope is not a strategy." Game plans and adjustments are the way to go.
Here are 10 things I'll be watching this weekend:
1. Face-to-face after trading places
Eli Manning was a Charger and Philip Rivers was a Giant ... well, almost. I was at the draft in 2004 and had a chance to talk with Manning the Charger. He was uncomfortable -- having been selected by San Diego with the No. 1 overall pick after telling the team not to take him -- and it was clear he knew something was going to change. Shortly after that, the Giants drafted Rivers fourth and traded him to the Chargers for Manning. This Sunday, Manning and Rivers will play each other for the first time.
Manning is struggling, with three touchdown passes and six interceptions in his last three games. And casual observers would say that Rivers has more big-play strikes down the field than Manning, but the truth is Manning has 30 completions over 20 yards and Rivers has 28. When it comes to long TDs that fit the "bomb" category, Manning has five and Rivers has one. Of course, Manning has a Super Bowl ring and Rivers does not. But none of that matters this week. It's just two competitors with totally different styles. Rivers is fiery and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Manning rarely shows his emotions but is raring to go.
2. Welcome to the NFL, kid
Josh Freeman takes over the starting quarterback role for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week. Freeman suggested earlier this week that he has the "swagger" of a starter.
Memo to Freeman: Please don't announce your own swagger. If you beat the Green Bay Packers, someone will announce it for you. For now, just get the play called, handle the snap and don't turn over the ball. Have you seen how Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford are doing? The other two rookie QBs have combined to throw 11 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions and take 27 sacks. But they also have wins, something the Bucs are still seeking.
3. Coaches turn up the heat
Seasons are made and lost this time of year, and a couple of coaches have been driving the point home all week. Tom Coughlin has attacked the core values of his New York Giants, who look to respond and rebound from a three-game losing streak. My suspicion is the Giants will come out running the ball against the San Diego Chargers.
Jack Del Rio realized audibles that take the ball out of Maurice Jones-Drew's hands and put it into David Garrard's aren't in the best interest of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Del Rio told me he will not repeat the error in last week's loss to the Tennessee Titans and go three series without handing off the ball to Jones-Drew against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Schwartz's "hope is not a strategy" line was accompanied with the message that players need to follow a plan and there will be consequences for not playing well. I agree, and I also know it's not a good week for Lions, who will face the Seattle Seahawks, to drop passes.
Can Coughlin, Del Rio and Schwartz turn around the fortunes of their teams?
4. Did they draft the right guy?
There's a showdown game in San Francisco this week. The Titans come to town to play the 49ers, with both teams hoping their former first-round draft picks can be the real deal at quarterback. Alex Smith and Vince Young were benched earlier in their careers, but they now have resurfaced in an attempt to reinvent themselves.
Young needs to run fewer than 12 times, as he did last week against the Jaguars, and throw the ball down the field. Smith needs to find another target down the field besides tight end Vernon Davis. I believe both young quarterbacks learned more than can be measured while riding the pine. This week, they must deliver a win. Of course, only one will do it.
5. Big division games
Division matchups are my favorite part of the season. A rematch also is high on my list of what intrigues me in the NFL. This week, there are five division matchups.
» The Baltimore Ravens hope to prevent a sweep by the Cincinnati Bengals, but it looks like the perfect storm for Bengals.
» The Houston Texans are 0-7 in Indianapolis, and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown 20 touchdown passes in those seven games, but the Texans believe this is their best chance (not so fast, when you consider that Houston's Owen Daniels, who was the most targeted tight end in the NFL, is out for the season with a knee injury).
» The Carolina Panthers are 5-0 at New Orleans with Jake Delhomme under center. Last season, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams had 178 yards against the Saints in the Superdome.
» The Miami Dolphins' Wildcat scheme was showcased in the Miami-New England game last season in Foxborough, Mass. The more Ronnie Brown throws from the Wildcat, the better the Dolphins' chances of winning.
» Finally, the Philadelphia Eagles will play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. The Eagles have a plus-13 advantage over the Cowboys in the turnover business.
6. My favorite matchups
Keep an eye on these individual matchups:
» Arizona Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett should have plenty of pass rushes against Chris Williams or Orlando Pace of the Chicago Bears. Dockett will win that battle.
» Pittsburgh Steelers LT Max Starks will need some help against Denver Broncos OLB Elvis Dumervil, but you have to believe he's up for the challenge after blocking James Harrison all summer.
» Indianapolis Colts DE Dwight Freeney has a sack in eight consecutive games and posted three last season against the Texans, who will bring out LT Duane Brown in an attempt to stop him.
» New Orleans Saints LT Jermon Bushrod has allowed four sacks this season, but he faces quite a challenge from Panthers DE Julius Peppers, who has 18 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception for a touchdown in his last four games.
7. Chatting with Chad
I had a great conversation with Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco on Thursday, and he's about as level-headed as I've ever heard him. He's doing a spot for Degree products, and that's why he sent some samples to his favorite Ravens this week. It will not really motivate the Ravens players any more than they already are for this game. Ochocinco has 15 receptions for 221 yards and two touchdowns in his last two games, and he's ready for a big game against Baltimore.
Keep your eye on first downs. Ochocinco has 19 receptions on first down for an 18-yard average. Any time a safety comes up to stop Bengals running back Cedric Benson, Ochocinco plans on burning the remaining pass defense.
8. Rope-a-dope continues
The Broncos must start throwing the ball down field. Brandon Marshall averages 10.8 yards per catch, and Eddie Royal averages 7.9 yards per catch. The Steelers will sit on the short passing attack Monday night and play the run as well.
The Dolphins and Titans are two other teams that need to air it out. Both average less than 10 yards per completion. It's time to take off the harness.
9. Will the Broncos rebound?
The Broncos are a fine football team, but after a 6-0 start, they met their match against the Ravens last week, and it might happen again Monday night. Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are ahead of last year's pace for sacks, and the linebackers as a group have 15 sacks. Pittsburgh will get after Denver quarterback Kyle Orton.
As for Ben Roethlisberger, he's actually improving against the pass rush. In 2007, the Steelers' quarterback was sacked once every 10 passes. In 2008, he was sacked once every 13 attempts and won a Super Bowl. This year, he has been sacked once every 20 attempts.
Coming off a bye, the Steelers in Denver sounds like a win to me.
10. Game of Wildcat-and-mouse
I have to be honest: If I had a franchise QB, there would be no Wildcat in my offense. But if I had a young, inexperienced QB and two good running backs, it would be a factor.
The Dolphins use the package more than any team, and it has produced 20 first downs and four touchdowns for them this season, so it's easy to see a place for it. The Patriots were burned by the Wildcat last season, and I'm sure the Dolphins will use it again Sunday. Will Bill Belichick have a plan for the 'Cat? It's a chess match that I can't wait to watch.