As we reach the midway portion of the season, the drama is building. We could see a historic streak could come to an end. Meanwhile, as a few preseason contenders continue to falter, the NFC playoff picture is full of surprises.
Here are the 10 things I will be watching closely in Week 8:
1. Iron-man streak in jeopardy
Brett Favre appears to be a game-time decision. He's been that before and answered the bell every time. Tarvaris Jackson gets more reps than most backup quarterbacks every week and had a significant amount of work this preseason before Favre showed up. So even though Jackson's only thrown 21 regular-season passes since 2009, he should be ready.
Don't count Favre out, though. In fact, I'll be surprised if he doesn't make his 292nd straight start. His most cherished record isn't the touchdown passes mark, it's the consecutive starts. What would any coach tell Favre if he walks in Sunday morning and says he can play? No one has ever told him to take a seat and skip a week.
2. How great is Manning?
Peyton Manning is considered by many to be the best quarterback in the NFL. He'll be put to the test this week with several weapons unable to play. The most serious injury was to TE Dallas Clark, who is out for the remainder of the season. How will Manning adjust? He worked overtime during the bye to get WR Blair White, TE Jacob Tamme and RB Mike Hart ready to go. Mark my words, they will be ready.
Houston beat Indianapolis in Week 1, but as one Texan said to me this week, "It's a whole lot different in their place." Look for Manning to re-adjust the clock in his head and quicken his release to overcome the problems on the offensive line. Expect the no-huddle package whenever he catches the Texans in the wrong personnel group. He'll also sell that great play-action pass game. The Texans are 0-8 in Indianapolis, and I think Manning will keep that streak going.
3. Defensive differences
As the conference pictures start to come into focus, it's clear that defensive schemes differ among the NFC and AFC contenders. If the playoffs started now, five of the top six teams in the NFC are in a 4-3 defense, while five of the top six in the AFC run the 3-4. Last year, the Super Bowl had two 4-3 teams, but this year looks like it will be one scheme vs. the other. The games that jump out in this area are the Vikings' 4-3 vs. the Patriots' 3-4, and the Steelers' 3-4 vs. the Saints' 4-3.
4. Review the review
The NFL really wants to get the calls right every time. While I know it's a tough job and no one is perfect, replay has been effective at correcting mistakes. However, when even replay is about to make a mistake that costs a team the game then maybe Carl Johnson, NFL head of officiating, should jump in.
I don't want to hear days after the game that the officials got two calls wrong on two touchdowns in the same game. Fourteen points were on the line between the Packers and Vikings. Maybe it's time that, on touchdown calls, Johnson, who is capable of looking at the same screens in New York, should make the call. Other sports are using a central office to look at officiating. In this age of technology, it needs to be discussed in the NFL. Let's hope this week doesn't produce another situation where a coach is so irate he has to write a check for $35,000 to the league like Brad Childress did. The fine didn't solve the problem.
5. QB carousel continues
We have already seen 59 quarterbacks throw at least one pass in NFL games through seven weeks. Now we can add 49ers QB Troy Smith and possibly Tarvaris Jackson to the list.
Injuries are taking a toll. Tony Romo going down has led to Jon Kitna becoming the starter in Dallas. Undrafted rookie Max Hall is trying to return after he was beat up physically and looked lost at times against the Seahawks. The Jaguars get David Garrard back after Todd Bouman had to play after years out of the game. Matthew Stafford returns for the Lions just in time, as his backups are all ailing.
The QB situation in Oakland is tough to predict from week to week. Does it matter who plays QB for the Titans? They just keep winning.
Thank goodness the Giants are on a bye because they have already knocked five quarterbacks out of games. The more I watch quarterbacks go down, the more I appreciate fast decision-makers. What keeps Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, and even Favre on the field is the ability to get the ball out quickly.
6. Balance overrated?
Coaches give a lot of lip service to offensive balance. For years, I paid homage to the concept of balance. However, if you do one thing really well, it's hard to make a case against doing it more than something else. For example, the Jets and Steelers run the ball on first downs and no one stops them. Right now, the Steelers run it 71 percent of the time on first down for an average of 4.56 yards per attempt. The Jets run it 68 percent of the time on first down for 5.16 yards per carry. Let's see what the Saints and Packers do about it, respectively, this weekend.
7. Worth noting
The defensive tackle with the most sacks in the NFL is Ndamukong Suh with 4.5. You might not guess which team has the fewest three-and-outs. It's the Jaguars! If I asked you which team has the highest percentage of run plays in the first half, would you have guessed the Colts? And if I told you to pick the team that throws the ball the fewest times in the first half, I'm not so sure you would pick the Ravens. Keep an eye on these notes to see if they hold up this weekend.
8. Steelers must adjust
The Steelers figured out what it took to go 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger. Now they face the task of winning without star defensive end Aaron Smith. Bill Cowher once told me Smith is the unsung hero of the defense. Pittsburgh has given up just two rushing touchdowns and four passing. Look for Ziggy Hood to replace Smith on passing situations, and Nick Eason or possibly Chris Hoke to get some work. Last week, I discussed what Roethlisberger brought to the offense, and he delivered with a good deep ball. He now has 14 passes of at least 20 yards in two games. To beat the Steelers, Brees will have to throw 50 times, and it will be interesting to see if the Steel Curtain gets after him.
9. Is it over for this group?
The Cowboys, Vikings, Chargers, 49ers, and even the Bengals were picked to be very good, if not win their divisions in many circles. Is it too late for a turnaround? While it doesn't look great, there are still a lot of division games to make up ground. The team in the biggest trouble is Dallas. The Cowboys are 3.5 games out with Romo hurt. All of these teams are in must-win situations this week.
10. 100-yard receivers
Last week, there were 11 receivers that had 100-plus receiving yards. Will that kind of pace continue? There are six teams on defense playing this week that see 40-plus pass attempts a game. Washington (45), Seattle (44), Tennessee (44), New England (42), Houston (41), and St. Louis (40), and we should see enough passing to have double-digit receivers in the 100-plus yard category this week.