AFC East: audibles
While the Bills wallow in their playoff futility and are almost certain to stretch their drought to an eighth straight year, the Dolphins are trying to enter the next phase of their turnaround from laughingstocks to AFC East contenders.
The Dolphins, with games remaining against the Bills and Jets, can win the division if they run the table.
Sunday's game also is critical for the Bills, whose playoff hopes are mathematically alive, though their disgusted fans know how remote that possibility is. Even if the Bills finish 10-6, it probably won't be enough. But without a victory over the Dolphins we'll never find out.
Perhaps Losman will be a sparkplug, but he mostly has misfired when given an opportunity the past two seasons. His mobility could help Buffalo against Miami outside linebacker Joey Porter, who ranks second with 14.5 sacks.
Miami will play without left guard Justin Smiley, who was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last Sunday. Buffalo's defensive line hasn't been a dynamic force, but Smiley's absence is a profound weakness on a shallow offensive line the Dolphins have struggled all year to bolster.
New York came crashing down last Sunday from the ozone layer, where they had been flying after back-to-back road victories over the Patriots and Titans.
The Jets could have taken an imposing lead in the AFC East race but were humbled at home by the beatable Broncos. Now the Jets have to fend off the rest of the division with a tricky final four games.
This weekend's trip will encompass 5,146 miles round trip. They'll host the Bills next week then fly another 4,804 miles round trip to play the Seahawks. There won't be any respite when they return to the Meadowlands for the regular-season finale. They'll meet the Dolphins in what could determine the division title.
San Francisco has earned its laughingstock reputation but has been playing well lately. Even so, the Jets' defense, with something to prove after last week's poor performance, should control running back Frank Gore and the tone of the game.
If the Patriots can't win this game, they don't deserve to return to the playoffs. They need at least a 3-1 record over their final four games based on where they are in the wild-card pecking order and the ease of the Dolphins' schedule.
Seattle looks like a fine place for the Patriots to rejuvenate themselves. The Patriots haven't lost to an NFC West opponent since early 2005, and the Seahawks have been horrible in head coach Mike Holmgren's swan dive season.
Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel is in his first real bounce-back situation. After establishing what he's capable of as an NFL starter -- consecutive 400-yard games against the Jets and Dolphins -- he had won of his first outings in last Sunday's 33-10 loss to the Steelers.
The Patriots should tee off on both sides of the ball.
Bills fans have been waiting for this game a long, long time.
The Bills, coming off their first loss of the season and a bye week, haven't played since Oct. 5 and haven't won since Sept. 28. They haven't played in Ralph Wilson Stadium in almost a month.
Sunday also presents the first significant measuring stick for just how good the Bills are. They have played several wounded opponents, and while the Chargers have had their problems, they've begun to perform more like the AFC contenders everyone expected.
The Bills are trying to prove that 41-17 punch in the gut at Arizona was a fluke and had two weeks to prepare. Quarterback Trent Edwards is back after suffering a concussion on the third snap of that game.
Regardless of the outcome, Sunday will be a statement game for the Bills.
If you're a fan of X's and O's matchups, your game of the week might take place in Dolphin Stadium.
The NFL's most creative offense will square off against the most unforgiving defense, and the Dolphins' previous head coach, Cam Cameron, is returning for the first time as the Ravens' offensive coordinator.
Comments made this week have given Sunday's game added intrigue. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, merely trying to support his assistant, reasoned Cameron didn't have much to work with in guiding the Dolphins to a 1-15 record last year.
Holdovers in the Dolphins' locker room are eager to prove a point on both sides of the ball.
A victory over the Ravens also would keep the Dolphins in the AFC East race heading into Week 8, something few expected. The Dolphins are two plays away from being 4-1, going down to the wire in their season opener against the New York Jets and last Sunday versus the Houston Texans.
New York Jets (3-2) at Oakland Raiders (1-4), 4:15 p.m. EST
The Jets are in position to make a push in the AFC East standings if they take care of business this week and next, setting up a potential battle for first place against the Bills on Nov. 2.
Brett Favre will return to the site of one of his most memorable games, where he threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns to rout the Raiders a day after his father passed away in December 2003.
Favre's development is coming along, and the Jets are in a segment of their schedule that takes pressure off of him to win games by himself. They kept the Cincinnati Bengals winless last week, and their next two opponents have one victory apiece. The Jets' offensive line and surging run game should continue to handle the heavy lifting for a while.
The Patriots are coming off their second loss of 20 points or more, something they've never had to do over the course of a full season under Bill Belichick.
They were bombed back to Foxborough, Mass., by the Chargers, who dropped long balls on cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Ellis Hobbs. In the Patriots' other ugly loss, Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington owned the middle of the field.
Denver, though, has trouble shutting down opposing offenses. Whether New England can exploit that weakness is another story.
One year after re-writing the NFL record books with Tom Brady, the Patriots have scored the fewest points in the AFC East. They are the one of only five teams to not have a 100-yard runner this year. Sammy Morris has 169 rushing yards, the lowest total of any team-leading running back.
New York Jets at Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m. ET
One month ago, nobody could have envisioned the Jets and Dolphins being the sexiest Week 1 game in the AFC East. They combined to win five games last year.
But the elements have changed, and fans haven't stopped drooling for weeks.
The Jets pulled off the biggest blockbuster trade in franchise history and obtained future Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre. The Dolphins wound up with a fine hand-me-down, signing Chad Pennington and giving him an opportunity for immediate retribution.
Sunday's storylines also include Dolphins football czar Bill Parcells lifting the curtain on his latest project -- against one of his former teams, no less. Dolphins rookie head coach Tony Sparano will make his debut against Eric Mangini, who is from another branch on the Parcells coaching tree. Mangini for the first time will be squaring off to some degree with his former mentor. Dolphins RB Ricky Williams is making his eleventy-sixth comeback and the Jets' rebuilt offensive line will be on display.
So there's some stuff to watch -- if you're into that kind of thing.
Most intriguing about the latest installment of this illustrious AFL rivalry, however, are the QB subplots. Aside from special teams, either Favre or Pennington will be on the field throughout.
The Dolphins might hold a significant advantage with Pennington. He spent eight years with the Jets and was with them through voluntary workouts, minicamp and the first two weeks of training camp.
When he lines up behind C Samson Satele and surveys the defense, it should feel like taking a ride through the old neighborhood. Pennington is the most efficient passer in NFL history and is known as one of the most cerebral. It will be interesting to see how he integrates the familiarity.
Favre, meanwhile, is learning a system and teammates Pennington knows better than he does. Favre showed proficiency with Brian Schottenheimer's playbook in the preseason, but does he know enough of the calls to make them work in Week 1?
For this game anyway, the edge should be Pennington's.
Prediction: Dolphins 24, Jets 21
Seattle Seahawks at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. ET
If the Bills are realists, they know they're playing for a wild-card berth barring a New England Patriots collapse. The Bills need to win every game they're supposed to, and this is one of them. They are opening their season at home against a Seahawks squad thinned by injuries and suspensions.
The Bills, however, are suffering from an internal crisis. The Bills already were without Pro Bowl LT Jason Peters, whose contract dispute doesn't appear close to a conclusion, when they learned Thursday their top returning tackler from last year was done for the year.
LB Angelo Crowell stunned the Bills by electing to have knee surgery. The Bills, apparently upset that another player was thinking of himself first and the team second, responded by placing Crowell on injured reserve.
But Sunday will come down to how the players respond, not the front office. The Bills either can rally together or wallow in discontent. Backup QB J.P. Losman supposedly is done pouting about his role, but WR Lee Evans expected to have his new contract finalized by now.
The game likely will be decided by the Bills' front seven defenders, their six regulars and whomever replaces Crowell -- either Keith Ellison or John DiGiorgio. The Seahawks are smarting at receiver and will need to run the ball effectively to win. That means they'll need to neutralize DT Marcus Stroud and then deal with MLB Paul Posluszny and strong-side LB Kawika Mitchell.
On offense, all eyes will be on QB Trent Edwards. He was limited to only four series in two preseason games because of a deep thigh bruise. How quickly he can find his game rhythm will be crucial. Bulldozer RB Marshawn Lynch should help.
Prediction: Bills 21, Seahawks 17
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, 1 p.m. ET
Patriots coach Bill Belichick should rest QB Tom Brady and give the Chiefs a sporting chance -- kind of like taking the laser sight off the rifle before you shoot fish in a bucket. Or something like that.
The Patriots are among the best two or three teams in the NFL. The Chiefs smell worse than Manny Ramirez's batting helmet.
New England does have a weakness: its secondary. Problem is, Kansas City doesn't appear to have the tools to exploit that shortcoming or accomplish much else. Miami's starters totally manhandled Kansas City's starters in the third exhibition game, traditionally the preseason game that most resembles a regular-season contest.
In case you've forgotten, the Patriots feature WRs Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney, RBs Laurence Maroney and LaMont Jordan and the most formidable defensive front in the league. They have that Brady guy, too.
Prediction: Patriots 42, Chiefs 10