Every Thursday, Steve Wyche examines a handful of the week's premier matchups on the field.
Rookie QBs vs. desperate teams
» The Bengals and rookie quarterback Andy Dalton are 6-2, but they've still yet to generate that convincing victory over a rugged team to convert the skeptical. They can finally stake their legitimacy this week against a Steelers team in need of a win to shake off its second loss to Baltimore and to keep within striking distance of the Ravens -- and the Bengals.
Dalton is going to see looks and pressures that he hasn't seen but playing at home could make his first experience against Pittsburgh a little less intimidating. The Bengals have to make sure not to fall behind early, which would force Dalton to be a sitting duck in the pocket.
» Carolina quarterback Cam Newton doesn't have many doubters, but the Panthers' lack of wins are starting to (unfairly) take some of the luster off what he's done. That could all change soon. Saints safety Roman Harper told me last week that Carolina is a team that's close to turning the corner and it could be a major thorn for teams that have positioned themselves for the playoffs -- like Tennessee, Sunday's opponent.
The Titans are 1½ games behind Houston and they have to keep pace because for them to get to the playoffs, they'll likely have to win the AFC South since the wild cards look like they'll be coming from the North and East. Many of Tennessee's players have practiced against a tall, athletic quarterback who could run -- former starter Vince Young -- but they didn't work against one who's as much of a complete package as Newton.
With a bye to make a relatively creative offense even harder to predict, Carolina and Newton might cause the Titans some problems.
» Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert hasn't looked nearly as good as his fellow rookie quarterbacks. He doesn't have their receiving weapons and his offensive line has been jumbled, but he doesn't look as pro ready as Dalton or Newton, either.
The Jaguars are coming off a bye, which for a rookie quarterback is a good time to take a step back, gather and get better. If Gabbert and the Jaguars can keep the Colts from gaining any hope early at Lucas Oil Stadium, they should be the latest team to prove how much Indianapolis misses Peyton Manning. However, if the Colts get some early scores -- especially one generated off a Gabbert turnover -- that could be what they need to finally get into the win column. This won't be an easy game for the Jaguars, or Gabbert.
Darren Sproles vs. any Falcon
While Drew Brees clearly is the Saints' Most Valuable Player, the guy that could make them extra dangerous en route to the postseason is running back/returner Darren Sproles. Each week coach Sean Payton seems to find a new way to pit Sproles against some hard-trying victims who simply can't cover or catch Sproles. Things should be no different in the Saints' battle for NFC South supremacy against the Falcons.
Sproles is helped by the fact that defenses have to account for so many other weapons. Plus, tight end Jimmy Graham tends to create voids either on swing or wheel routes or underneath patterns by taking a safety or cover linebacker wherever he goes. That tends to leave a lesser coverage player on the diminutive Sproles and that's never good for the defense.
Sproles is hardly a gimmick player with the Saints. He's carried the ball 49 times and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He is New Orleans' leading receiver with 56 catches for 446 yards. He's also averaging 9.7 yards per punt return and 27.2 yards per kickoff return. He is a total game-changer when it comes to field position and explosive plays.
The Falcons will have to be assignment perfect and swarm to tackle Sproles in space when they're in nickel sets. They'll also have to be successful adjusting into pass coverages on Sproles out of their base package so that Brees might have to look to other targets -- though that's not necessarily a good thing, either.
Lions' run game vs. Bears' run defense
The rematch after Detroit's convincing victory over Chicago a month ago could have huge implications as the winner puts itself in strong position to secure a playoff berth, albeit most likely a wild card.
Detroit went 1-2 afterwards before having a bye last week while the Bears ripped off three straight victories.
During Chicago's recent surge, it hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher. In fact, until Monday's victory over the Eagles, it didn't surrender more than 100 yards overall on the ground during its winning streak. Chicago's players were upset after the debacle in Detroit and they raised the level of their production and discipline.
Chicago likely will sit back in coverage and dare Detroit -- which appears it won't have Best (concussion) available -- to run the ball. The Bears will be willing to give up underneath routes and play defenders deep enough so Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson won't beat them deep in the passing game. The Lions' passing attack is lethal but with only backup RBs Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams to offset things, Chicago could increase Detroit's chances of turning the ball over.