This weekend's NFL action features several fascinating storylines and matchups. Among the most intriguing: a former No. 1 overall pick returns to face his original team, and one of the league's marquee quarterbacks takes on the top defensive mind in football. After studying all 14 games on the Week 9 schedule, I've come up with my list of five must-follow matchups. Here they are:
Schein: Playoffs over perfection
The Atlanta Falcons have arguably the top pass-catching tandem in all of football. Roddy White is the ideal technician who can work in the middle of the field, while Julio Jones provides the explosive plays over the top of opposing defenses. They have already combined to catch 75 balls and nine touchdowns this season, with 15 catches of 20-plus yards. Their consistent play is one of the main reasons why Atlanta is the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys haven't lived up to expectations this season, but they are still a very talented squad. They are one of the few teams that have the personnel to match up with Atlanta's dangerous receiving duo. Cowboys cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Mike Jenkins are all physical in press coverage, and they did a great job of controlling the Giants' passing attack last Sunday. If they can effectively re-route White and Jones, it will provide a little extra time for DeMarcus Ware to get to quarterback Matt Ryan.
If the Green Bay Packers can protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers, they should cruise to victory over the Arizona Cardinalson Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals don't have the depth in their secondary to match up with Rodgers' collection of weapons on the outside. That being said, keeping Rodgers upright won't be easy against Arizona's extremely athletic defensive front. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are very disruptive interior pass rushers and Daryl Washington is the NFL's best inside blitzing linebacker. The Cardinals are currently tied for the league lead with 26 sacks.
The Packers' offensive line has been very spotty in pass protection throughout the entire 2012 campaign. Green Bay has already allowed 28 sacks, which is second most in the entire league. That number could be even higher if not for Rodgers' quick release and ability to escape pressure. When the Green Bay offensive line provides adequate protection, Rodgers has the talent and weaponry to put up a ton of points.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin had a breakout game as his team knocked off the Minnesota Vikings 36-17 last Thursday night. The talented rookie rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown and also caught three balls for 79 yards and another score. Martin's vision, quickness and balance have been very impressive throughout the season, but he showed surprising power against the Vikings. He will need to have another big game Sunday for the Bucs to pick up a road win in Oakland.
The Oakland Raiders' defense is currently ranked 11th against the run and completely shut down Jamaal Charles during a 26-16 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8. Richard Seymour and the rest of the Raiders' defensive front have been very physical against the run, and Oakland's young linebackers are playing solid football, as well. If the Raiders can keep Martin from producing big plays in the running game, they should be able to create pressure against a banged-up Bucs offensive line.
4) Eli Manning vs. Dick LeBeau
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There are numerous must-follow matchups in the Steelers-Giants game, but this one is the most intriguing. Eli Manning has led the New York Giants to four straight wins and he continues to build on his reputation as one of the league's greatest clutch performers. His late-game heroics against the Washington Redskins provided one of the most memorable moments of the 2012 season. He didn't have one of his better outings against the Cowboys last week, but he did lead the Giants to another come-from-behind victory.
Manning will need to play better this week for the Giants to keep their winning streak alive. Dick LeBeau has the Pittsburgh Steelers defense playing much better over the past few weeks. After an inconsistent start, the Steelers have held three of their past four opponents to 17 or fewer points and are the NFL's second-rated defense, allowing 274.1 yards per game. Despite their ranking, the Steelers must do a better job of creating big plays on defense: They have only 12 sacks.
5) Mario Williams vs. Derek Newton
The Houston Texans selected Mario Williams with the first pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. After six solid seasons in Houston, Williams signed a very lucrative free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills. He will be extremely amped up to play well in his return to Reliant Stadium. He will spend the majority of his time matched up against Texans right tackle Derek Newton. The Texans should be able to run the ball successfully against the Bills, and that should make Newton's task a little easier.