We are close to the middle of the season. Eight teams will be playing their eighth game this weekend, marking the end of the second quarter of the season. There are four division matchups this weekend as races for division titles start to tighten up. Two of the first-round quarterbacks from the 2011 draft face off as Christian Ponder leads the Vikings into Carolina. Last year after eight weeks of action, six first-place teams went on to win their divisions (and the two that didn't win the title were wild cards, anyway).
Here are the six storylines I am following this weekend with great interest.
Winning on the road in the NFL is tough. Road teams this season are 41-62. This weekend, five teams that already are a combined 0-16 on the road play away fromhome, and prospects for improvement look grim. Miami visits the Giants, Jacksonville visits the Texans, Indianapolis visits the Titans, Minnesota is in Carolina and the Cardinals take the field in Baltimore. By the way, the opponents in those games are 11-5 at home. There may be parity in the NFL, but it doesn't apply to road games.
Teams, QBs look to bounce back
Who could have imagined Philip Rivers would have fewer touchdown passes at this point than Matt Cassel, especially since he has attempted 48 more passes? They face each other this weekend in a very important AFC West battle -- and it happens to be the first division rematch of the 2011 season (the Chargers won, 20-17, in Week 3). Other bounce back QBs this week should be Tennessee's Matt Hasselbeck and Baltimore's Joe Flacco. If any of these three quarterbacks lose again this week, the panic button just might get hit. Rivers, Flacco and Hasselbeck last week combined for three touchdown passes, five interceptions and five sacks.
Rookie pass rushers on record pace
I am starting to get excited about two rookie pass rushers who are on pace for 16-sack seasons. Von Miller (Denver) and Aldon Smith (San Francisco) each has six sacks through six games. Both are home this weekend, where the advantage goes to the pass rusher over the pass blocker because of the crowd noise. Jevon Kearse owns the rookie record for sacks, with 14.5 in 1999, and these two young men are on target to break the mark. The Broncos' opponent this week, Detroit, and the 49ers' opponent, Cleveland, have each already allowed 14 sacks this year; I expect more sacks for the rookie pass rushers.
Game inside the game
If you can discipline yourself to take your eye off the ball and watch some of the great individual battles going on during the contests this weekend, then you can enjoy the game inside the game - the great individual matchups. This week, try to take a good look at the following pass rushers against some of the better offensive tackles in the game:
In Carolina, Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross - who has given up half a sack -- faces the NFL's No. 1 pass rusher, Jared Allen (11.5 sacks). In Philadelphia, Eagles left tackle Jason Peters has surrendered 1.5 sacks and he meets up with No. 2 pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (8 sacks). In New York, Jason Pierre-Paul, third in the NFL with 7.5 sacks, battles the Dolphins' Jake Long, who has surrendered 4 sacks this year
Will these guys be busy?
For different reasons, a few running backs need to get the ball more this weekend. Ray Rice of the Ravens only had eight carries in the Monday night loss to the Jaguars. Prior to that, he averaged 18 rushing attempts a game. Teammate Terrell Suggs was outspoken about Rice not getting the ball. I expect 20 carries this weekend against the Cardinals.
Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the NFL, but he doesn't get the same amount of carries on the road that he gets at home -- and he is on the road this weekend against the Panthers, who can't stop the run. In three road games so far in 2011, Peterson has 51 carries for 217 yards (4.2 average) and one touchdown. In four home games, he averages 5.2 yards on 95 carries for 495 yards, and seven touchdowns. Time to feed Peterson on the road. As for Chris Johnson, he has been awful, with one touchdown in 117 touches. I wouldn't mind seeing Javon Ringer get more work and let CJ watch from the sidelines.
Waiting for the cavalry to return
Injuries play a big role in the success or failure of most clubs this time of year. Medicine is amazing and I marvel at how quickly doctors and training staffs can get players back on the field. This week, there could be six very important players returning to action who could make a big difference for their teams. As Browns coach Pat Shurmur told me this week, "We need Peyton Hillis back on the field." Hillis had 1,654 yards of offense last year and may be more important as a receiver than a runner. He has dropped one pass in two years. Other notables who would make a big difference if they can make it back on the field this week include: 49ers WR Braylon Edwards, Steelers DT Casey Hampton, Giants RB Brandon Jacobs, and possibly Texans WR Andre Johnson and Seahawks QB Tarvaris Jackson.