Every Thursday, Steve Wyche will examine a handful of the week's premier matchups on the field.
The shaping of the AFC playoff picture could start coming into focus this weekend as Kansas City and Cincinnati could play themselves into positions of strength, Houston could strengthen its grip on the AFC South, and Baltimore could get well before a huge matchup in Week 9 against Pittsburgh.
Brady vs. Steelers defense
The matchup of the week, though, will take place at Heinz Field, with the winner of the Steelers-Patriots game positioning itself as the team to beat in the AFC.
The Patriots, and quarterback Tom Brady, have had their way with the Steelers (winning four of five in Pittsburgh). New England is coming off a bye, giving the Patriots' top-ranked offense -- already an encrypted labyrinth -- additional time to figure out how to move the ball against a defense that lately has started to look more Steelers-like.
X-factors for Week 8
Lesser-known players often end up deciding games, and Bucky Brooks points out that Steelers WR Antonio Brown could do just that against the Patriots. **More ...**
A key to the Patriots' success against Pittsburgh has been Brady's ability to get rid of the ball so quickly that it negates the Steelers' pass rush and puts Pittsburgh's standout outside linebackers in rush/coverage limbo. That could only get more complicated for the Steelers with the Patriots' use of tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and slot receiver Wes Welker, a pass-catching machine.
The secondary coach of one team that faced the Patriots this season said New England is incredibly adept at busting schemes because it spreads the field and forces defenders to make one-on-one plays at all three levels. If there is an integrity lapse in coverage, pass pressure or if a player simply gets beat, the defense can be unraveled.
Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu will be forced to be more of a coverage player because of the Patriots' attack, which could limit his effectiveness in run support (New England doesn't run much anyway) and in pass pressure.
Key for the Steelers will be for their cornerbacks to get their hands on New England's receivers to re-route or delay them, especially on the quick routes. If Brady is forced to squeeze the ball for a split second, that could be enough time for pressure to get him off schedule and allow the Steelers to dictate flow.
It's almost impossible to do that consistently. However, if Pittsburgh is able to occasionally force the Patriots to punt and have its offense string together enough drives to not let New England get into a rhythm, then the Steelers have a good chance to win their fourth consecutive game -- and their first against a serious playoff contender.
As much as the Patriots' passing attack is the spine of the matchup analysis, Pittsburgh's ability to score with the big play in the passing game could end up being the story.
Tebow vs. Suh and crew
Tim Tebow overcoming an otherwise brutal performance to rally Denver to victory over Miami in the final five minutes on Sunday has already become a legend of Paul Bunyan proportions. How much that legend grows -- or shrinks -- could be decided this week against a reeling Lions team hungry to get back to its winning ways.
Tebow got sacked six times in 33 attempts last week. He's facing a much more rugged front against Detroit, which could impact Tebow more with pressures and hurries as opposed to sacks. The strategy will be to pressure Tebow from the edges and force him to play from the pocket, where tackles Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams routinely work their way into opposing backfields.
If Tebow can elude the pressure of the front four or make plays before it gets into his face, Denver can hit some chain-moving plays. The Lions' back seven is vulnerable -- but so is the Broncos' offensive line, and Tebow's slow delivery and tendancy to try to extend plays could be a problem against Detroit.
Tebow's unorthodox traits provide openings for sacks and turnovers -- especially since he turns his back to pressure while scrambling sometimes. If Detroit's defenders could stifle receivers' releases off the line of scrimmage, Tebow's timing could be thrown off and the theatrics could be on. The Lions figure to get pressure, they'll just have to apply and maintain it for more than 55 minutes.
Flowers vs. Chargers big WRs
Following a 28-0 victory over Oakland, Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said to me, "We're actually going to be playing for the division lead Monday night." The Chiefs (3-3) play host to AFC West-leading San Diego (4-2).
His remarks were equal parts pride in Kansas City's turnaround and surprise that a team that doesn't appear to have much more than grit on its side has leveled itself. One of the players who has led the surge -- and is quietly playing himself into Pro Bowl recognition -- is cornerback Brandon Flowers.
Flowers has four interceptions on the season -- including a pick six last week vs. Oakland and another interception when Kansas City nearly beat San Diego in Week 3.
Flowers, at 5' 9'', will be physically overmatched against Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd (both 6' 5''), but he is a good bump-and-run player who seems to know how opposing receivers run routes and when they expect the ball. That's someone who studies and takes his craft seriously.