With high-profile names like Donovan McNabb and Randy Moss on a bye, that gives us a chance to appreciate this week's action without distraction.
Here are the 10 things I will be watching closely in Week 9:
1. Can they measure up?
Each season, teams no one was counting on defy the analysts and capture the hearts of fans. This year is no exception. Three teams are to the point where we can see if their early success was just a nice story, or if they are for real.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were supposed to be bottom-feeders, but are 5-2 and knocking on the front door of the Atlanta Falcons. They meet for the NFC South lead. The Buccaneers are 3-0 on the road and the Falcons are 3-0 at home. Something has to give. Both teams ask terrific young quarterbacks to do extraordinary things every Sunday, so be ready.
Meanwhile, two surprise teams square off when the Kansas City Chiefs travel to Oakland to face the Raiders. This used to be a nationally-televised game between two elite teams. Both organizations had struggled of late, but have roared back this season. An Oakland win would make the Raiders 3-0 in the division while a Kansas City victory would secure a three-game lead in the loss column.
2. Battle of contrasting styles
Could there be a more interesting QB matchup this weekend than Peyton Manning, the classic drop-back passer, vs. Michael Vick, the great athlete with escape skills. Manning doesn't move anything like Vick, but he's sacked far less. It will be fun to watch who succeeds here. Pay close attention to Dwight Freeney. If he uses his classic spin move, Vick could go to Freeney's side if he feels the pressure coming and be gone.
3. Attacking Revis Island
The Lions are getting ready for the Jets' high-pressure defense that loves to jump into the old Bear 46 front and leave the corners on an island. Detroit knows the best way to beat that defense is to throw outside. That means lots of chances for Calvin Johnson to go against Darrelle Revis. I am confident the Lions will take eight to 10 shots, and as Dan Marino said to me a few weeks ago, "Calvin looks open right over his head every time."
4. Don't underestimate Childress
No one has been under more scrutiny and pressure than Vikings coach Brad Childress. Moss is gone and the team moves on. There are a number of real pros on Minnesota's roster and don't be fooled into thinking the coach has lost the team. In speaking with Jared Allen, he was way more interested in talking about the players trying to turn this season around than suggesting Childress can't stand in front of this team and inspire them. Look for Minnesota to play a real solid game and get a victory over Arizona.
5. Road warriors face stiff challenge
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6. Seeking revenge
The Steelers don't usually get swept by a division foe, so they'll be looking to get back at the Bengals. Last year, Ben Roethlisberger had one touchdown pass, two interceptions and the Bengals sacked him five times. This season, there is little to no pass rush from Cincinnati and Roethlisberger should have a good day.
The Steelers have always had Chad Ochocinco's number. He only has three touchdown receptions in his last 13 games against Pittsburgh. Factor in, Terrell Owens is the most targeted receiver in the NFL. T.O. has been targeted 85 times in seven games.
7. Protection plan
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is being sacked at an alarming rate of once every 7.7 pass attempts, not to mention all the hits he endures after and during throws. He is on pace for 62 sacks, that's if he's upright by season's end. Chicago is coming off a bye where it tried to solve some of the protection issues. The Bills only have 11 sacks and get to the quarterback once every 18.5 pass plays. The Bears have lost two in a row and feel a shot at the division and playoffs slipping away. This game, in Toronto, should tell us all we need to know about the rest of the Bears' season.
8. Aiming for 400, and a win
Chargers QB Philip Rivers is on pace to break Marino's single-season passing yardage record. Rivers, who is averaging 331.1 passing yards per game, has already thrown for 400-plus yards twice and lost both times. In his career, Rivers has three 400-yard games, all resulting in losses. He is at Houston against the No. 32 pass defense, and he might have to add another 400-yard game to win this one because the Texans will put points up.
9. Pride on the line
The Dallas Cowboyshead to Lambeau Field as an underachieving team. Green Bay is coming off the first shut out of the year in the NFL. The Packers have injuries galore, but went on the road to blank the Jets. Now they're at home, where they average 27.5 points a game. Can the Cowboys compete and fight that voice in their head that whispers "here we go again" when times get tough?
10. Pupil and mentor meet again
I had the opportunity to work with Bill Belichick and his prize pupil back in the day, Eric Mangini. A few years later, I watched both work together to earn a few trips to the Super Bowl. Then Mangini went to the Jets and the friction started between him and Belichick. Now the Patriots come to Cleveland.