NFL Nation: audibles 9
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul KuharskyGreen Bay Packers (4-3) at Tennessee Titans (7-0), 1 p.m. ET
The Packers have gotten healthy and will come to Nashville well-rested following a bye, while the Titans played an emotional game Monday night and had a short week. I don't buy any trap game theories and Jeff Fisher has been very good at keeping his good teams from any sort of hangovers, but I do buy that this is a bad matchup for Tennessee and could be its first loss.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has rested up that sore shoulder and defensive backs Atari Bigby and Al Harris are set to rejoin a secondary that shut down the Colts in the last game it played. Bigby will help in run defense, where I suspect the Packers can load up, leaving their corners on islands to deal with unintimidating receivers.
That would mean Green Bay selling out to stop the run and taking their chances against Kerry Collins & Co. It's what Indy tried, but it didn't work for the Colts, in part because they threw two picks and turned the ball over on downs twice.
If the Packers protect the ball better, they could have a breakthrough.
The Titans are the NFL's lone remaining unbeaten team.
The Jaguars have struggled with consistency all year, and their chance to pull things together and be a factor in the AFC playoff field is reliant on victories this week at winless Cincinnati and next week at, as of now, winless Detroit.
Jacksonville plays tight games -- all seven have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Cornerback Rashean Mathis has played well at times -- he helped shut down Denver's Brandon Marshall, for example. He's likely to draw T.J. Houshmandzadeh often. That's a guy you don't want to get going for a team desperate for any crumbs of momentum.
The Bengals are 0-8 for the fifth time in franchise history. Three of the four previous times the Bengals started 0-8, they won their ninth game.
The Texans are a bad road team and the Metrodome is a tough venue. Houston can prove a lot if it can win there, pulling to 4-4 after an 0-4 start.
Minnesota is ranked No. 2 against the run, forcing opponents to throw. The Texans have gotten pretty comfortable throwing it, ranking fifth in pass offense.
It could come down to which offensive star manages to have a better day, Minnesota running back Adrian P
eterson or Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson. Surely the Vikings will want to slow Johnson with Antoine Winfield as often as possible. Of course, the Texans will work to get Johnson into some situations where Cedric Griffin is trying to cover him.
The Vikings are coming off a bye and are 15-4 all-time in their first game following a week off.
The prevailing thinking on this game is that the Colts will find more plays and that Peyton Manning should outduel Matt Cassel. But I am getting the feeling the Patriots are figuring out who they are and what they can do while Indianapolis is learning what it isn't and what it can't do.
Look for New England to try to get the ball to Wes Welker working out of the slot. He's got at least six catches in the first seven games of the year, a feat accomplished by only three players in league history before.
Colts cornerback Tim Jennings will work outside as a starter in place of Marlin Jackson, but it's unclear what Indianapolis will do in the nickel. The guy next in line at cornerback is Dante Hughes, who missed practice all week with an ankle injury. Behind him is Keiwan Ratliff, who was just re-signed. But the Colts could go with three safeties, finding a way to keep Melvin Bullitt involved even with Bob Sanders due back.
Indianapolis slowed the Titans strong run game last week. Sanders should give them a boost as the Colts try to do the same to New England. Then the question is about slowing Welker and Randy Moss and making Cassel uncomfortable. Those Patriots receivers have a lesser quarterback, but could be better suited to produce than their Colts counterparts, Marvin Harrison (not himself these days) and Reggie Wayne (missed two practices and was limited Friday with a knee injury).
"You just look at what happened last week. You take out a couple plays and [they] really outplayed the Redskins most of the game. Or you can go back to next week where they lost by seven points to Houston on the road. How about the 10-12 game to Minnesota at Minnesota? Our guys watch the video. We've played the Lions enough to know what type of team they are. Their record is definitely misleading...."
If you want to know what coach-speak sounds like, there you have it. Bears quarterback Kyle Orton feasts on Detroit, and you have to imagine it's going to be a long day for the Lions.
Green Bay will get a key personnel boost in the return of safety Atari Bigby, who, like replacement Aaron Rouse, is a big body and a sure tackler. The Packers might want to figure out a way to use both players in order to maximize their physical presence against the Titans.
Otherwise, it could be a long day for Green Bay. If Tennessee controls the time of possession, Rodgers and the Packers' offense won't get enough opportunities to score.
That optimism, of course, is assuming the Vikings avoid the type of colossal meltdown on special teams that doomed their Oct. 19 game against the Bears. The possibility certainly exists: Houston's Jacoby Jones already has two punt returns for touchdowns this season.
The Vikings are hoping that the return of safety Madieu Williams will have a trickle-down effect on special teams. Rookie Tyrell Johnson, who had been starting for Williams, should move into multiple phases of coverage and bring some sure tackling to coverage units.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
This is a battle of two hot teams that are quietly playing their best football of the season.
There's a lot on the line for the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. The Ravens have a chance to solidify themselves as a legitimate playoff contender with a victory, while the Browns can get back to .500 at the midpoint of their season.
Both teams could be dangerous in the second half of the season. The Ravens appear to be getting their offense on track, averaging 28 points the past two games. If Baltimore can continue scoring at that clip along with its strong defense, the Ravens will be tough to beat. The Browns have won three of their last four games and finally are playing to the potential many expected coming into the season.
Quarterback play will be key on Sunday. The Ravens have an NFL-best 26-game streak of holding rushers under 100 yards, so Derek Anderson of Cleveland likely will have to win this game through the air. Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco is improving and has even flashed some unexpected athleticism running and catching the ball.
The Cincinnati Bengals need to win soon if they want to avoid a franchise record for futility. They will get their next chance Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Cincinnati is off to its fifth 0-8 start in team history and the first under head coach Marvin Lewis. The Bengals' all-time worst start was in 1993, when the team started 0-10.
The good news for the Bengals is the Jaguars have struggled against the AFC North. Both Cleveland and the Pittsburgh Steelers went into Jacksonville this year and walked out with victories. At home Cincinnati will try to make it 0-3 against its division for the Jags.
The biggest challenge for the Bengals lately has been keeping games close. Cincinnati has lost its past three games by an average margin of 23 points.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) at Washington Redskins (6-2), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday
For the second time in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in arguably the best game of the week against an NFC East team. Monday, it comes against the Washington Redskins as Pittsburgh needs to prove it can compete against the NFL's best division.
The Steelers are off to a fast start, but they are 0-2 against the NFC East. In addition, Pittsburgh's offense has been pummeled by the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles in those two losses, scoring just 20 combined points and giving up 13 quarterback sacks. Expect Washington to also bring a lot of pressure as teams continue to try to exploit the Steelers' inconsistent pass protection.
Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranked defense will look for a way to slow MVP candidate and NFL leading rusher Clinton Portis, who has 944 rushing yards in eight games. Portis is the type of running back that can give Pittsburgh trouble. The Steelers much prefer shutting down bigger tailbacks and matching their physicality for four quarters. Portis is more of a slasher with home-run potential.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
There is something interesting about the Kansas City Chiefs as we head to November.
Thank you, Tyler Thigpen. At 1-6, the Chiefs aren't exactly a compelling study heading into the final nine games of their slate. However, Thigpen added some intrigue to their season. A whole lot of it.
In his second NFL start, Thigpen, who was horrible in his first start, played shockingly well in the Chiefs' last-minute 28-24 loss to the Jets last Sunday. Thigpen threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns and he wasn't intercepted. He completed his first 10 pass attempts.
Thigpen outplayed Brett Favre for much of the game. With quarterbacks Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard out for the rest of the season with injuries, Thigpen will get plenty of chances to build upon his strong game.
It won't be easy this week against a fine Tampa Bay defense. But we're looking forward to seeing how Thigpen performs. Last week, there was little to look forward to in Kansas City, other than the draft. But Thigpen has brought some life to the Chiefs' world.
Are the Denver Broncos ready for the Wildcat?
At this point, it's no sure thing the Broncos' defense could handle Heathcliff, the cat. Don't be surprised if the Wildcat roars loud and proud in the Rocky Mountains.
Denver's defense has been a sieve. Without the services of the Bailey brothers, Champ (the star cornerback is out for a month with a groin injury) and Boss (the linebacker is out for the year with a knee problem that required surgery), it could be tough sledding for the Broncos.
Denver, which sits atop the AFC West with a 4-3 record, has struggled against the run and pass on defense. Trick plays just complicate matters. Confusion could be the order of the day for the struggling Broncos defense.
If Miami leaves Denver with a win, it will be on the strength of the Wildcat.
This is a battle of the highly drafted quarterbacks.
Maybe Russell can learn something from the rookie.
Ryan has been outstanding this season. He has the look of a winner and the Falcons are flying fairly high at 4-3. Yes, Ryan is a rookie but he looks like he's on his way to being a star. Russell has struggled right along with the Raiders, who are 2-5. Like Ryan, this is essentially Russell's rookie season. He played sparingly as a rookie last season.
Russell has shown some signs that he could be a winning quarterback, but he is behind Ryan in his development. Beating Ryan and the Falcons could go a long way in Russell's development.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Arizona Cardinals (4-3) at St. Louis Rams (2-5), 1 p.m. ET
The division race pretty much ends if the Cardinals win this game and the Seahawks lose at home to the Eagles. Arizona hasn't had this much at stake in a road game all season. How the Cardinals respond -- against a resurgent but probably inferior opponent -- tells us whether Arizona is ready to take the next important step in its growth.
The Rams' familiarity with Kurt Warner and the Arizona offense helps their cause, particularly if defensive end Leonard Little is healthy enough to play. Coach Jim Haslett told reporters Friday that he felt better about Little being able to fight through a hamstring injury. Little lasted not quite two quarters against New England, however, and his durability is a concern.
Warner and friends might be able to win this game for Arizona through the air, but the Cardinals will need their ground game for balance as the season progresses. The Rams have shown they can run the ball even without Steven Jackson. That's why a lower-scoring game could favor the Rams, particularly if that pass rush gets to Warner.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-3) at Seattle Seahawks (2-5), 4:15 p.m. ET
Coach Mike Holmgren says the Seahawks have decided to go down swinging. That beats the play-it-safe offensive philosophy that made Seattle so predictably boring in defeat after losing quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and several receivers to injury.
And yet, the prognosis remains guarded even following a blowout victory at San Francisco in Week 8. The Eagles have the pass rush and personnel in the secondary to make life tough for Seneca Wallace and the Seahawks' remaining receivers.
Seattle might have had a hard time beating Philadelphia even with Hasselbeck, Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and leading pass-rusher Patrick Kerney available. All four will miss the game, and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu is hurting.
On defense, the Seahawks have allowed 14 pass plays of at least 30 yards, tied with the Lions for most in the league. The Eagles' DeSean Jackson will likely add to that total.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Hall's problems in Atlanta got overshadowed by Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino. The Falcons already have moved beyond their former quarterback and coach. Moving beyond Hall -- and perhaps getting receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins behind him in coverage a few times -- could be another major step in Atlanta's dramatic turnaround.
That's the situation the Bucs have found themselves in with starter B.J. Askew out with an injury and not looking like he's ready to come back any time soon. That's part of the reason the Bucs scored just nine points in Dallas in Week 8 and why they haven't been able to run the ball consistently.
They're using Jameel Cook, whom they signed off the street a couple weeks ago, as their lead blocker. Cook was with the Bucs in 2005, but the offense (which had Chris Simms at quarterback at that point) is dramatically different.
Against a struggling defense like the Chiefs, this is a perfect opportunity for Cook to show the coaches he can handle the playbook. If the Bucs truly are going to contend for the NFC South title, they need more out of Cook and they need a lot more than nine points a game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Giants coach Tom Coughlin bristled when asked if his team might experience a letdown because of the absence of so many key players for the Cowboys. This rivalry has heated up over the past three seasons, and Coughlin won't allow his players to take the Cowboys lightly just because the soft-tossing Brad Johnson is under center.
If Johnson can't at least pose a threat of throwing more than 15 yards downfield, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will keep eight players in the box in order to stop running back Marion Barber. Defensive end Justin Tuck has an unbelievably quick first step, and he'll try to get inside position on right tackle Marc Colombo. If the Cowboys don't have Jason Witten (ribs), rookie Martellus Bennett will have to help block Tuck. If the Cowboys worry too much about Tuck, defensive tackle Fred Robbins and defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka will harass Johnson.
If the Cowboys fall behind early, backup quarterback Brooks Bollinger might replace Johnson. Wade Phillips is hoping that Johnson can play mistake-free football and complete an occasional pass downfield. The Cowboys are coming off an oustanding defensive performance. Look for safety Ken Hamlin to be active in the blitz packages, and I think you'll even see a corner blitz in this game. The defensive line and linebackers have to maintain gap control to slow down running backs Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward.
Quarterback Eli Manning is playing with a ton of confidence, and he'll throw a couple of deep balls early to test the Cowboys' inexperienced secondary. The Cowboys are simply trying to get to the bye. It's almost like they've accepted a loss Sunday, so I'm anticipating a lopsided final score.
This is huge for both teams. You have to try pretty hard to play yourself out of the weak NFC West -- and the Seahawks have done their best. Eagles coach Andy Reid served under Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and the two men have a great deal of respect for each other. That said, Reid's preparing to deliver a waxing to the outmanned Seahawks.
Without Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, there's only so much the Seahawks' offense can do. Seneca Wallace can move around a little bit, but his lack of arm strength really hinders any downfield passing game. And the only team that can run on Philly these days is Washington with Clinton Portis. Julius Jones has put up decent numbers, but he won't be a factor in Sunday's game.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb will be glad to see Reggie Brown return to the lineup. Brown has been out the past two games with a groin injury. He and Kevin Curtis complement each other nicely and DeSean Jackson gives the Eagles a legitimate downfield threat and a solid punt returner.
It's tough to win at Qwest Field, but the Eagles are getting ready to batter Wallace. With a healthy McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook, the Eagles have too much firepower for the Seahawks.
The NFC East owns the Steelers so far this season. By my count, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked a combined 13 times by the Eagles (8) and Giants (5). The Redskins don't have a dynamic pass rush, but they do an excellent job of stiffening when teams get near the goal line.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs have been strong in press coverage, which will make it tough for Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes to get off the line of scrimmage. Springs is banged up, but the other corners should be up to the task. The Steelers' offensive line hasn't
been very impressive, and the team doesn't have a healthy running back to help compensate for that right now.
On offense, Redskins running back Clinton Portis is in the middle of a remarkable stretch. He has run for 120 yards or more in five consecutive games. And what's even more impressive is it's the second time in his career he's pulled that off. Left tackle Chris Samuels has been slowed by a knee injury, which could hamper the running game. The Redskins love to run a play called "90 press lead" on which Portis starts right and then cuts back to the left behind fullback Mike Sellers. If you see Portis tugging on the back of Sellers' jersey, it's a great sign for the Redskins.
Jason Campbell is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league right now. He still hasn't thrown an interception in the first eight games of the season. And that's not because he's overly conservative. The Steelers will try to bring pressure from outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. But the Redskins will counter that with a steady diet of running plays.
Posted by ESPN Research's Jeremy Lundblad
The Jets travel to Buffalo for what will be the Bills' first division home game of the season. The Bills haven't waited this long to host a divisional foe since 1998.
So while the Bills are sitting pretty at 5-2, they have lost their only AFC East game (Week 8 at Miami). While certainly not a must-win game, avoiding an 0-2 division record could be key to the Bills' playoff hopes.
The Bills have won their last three meetings with the Jets, and are 2-0 with Trent Edwards at the helm. Edwards will be without his second-favorite target wide receiver Josh Reed (Achilles/ankle injury) who is out indefinitely.
The Jets faced weak opponents in their previous three games, but struggled to beat the Bengals and Chiefs, while losing to the Raiders.
Brett Favre needs a turnaround game. He has thrown seven interceptions in his past three games against teams with a combined record of 3-19. Considering the Jets won 2 of 3 games in spite of those turnovers is a tribute to Favre's ability in the clutch.Statistically, the Bills are one of the best pass defenses Favre has seen all season. However, Buffalo was torched by Ted Ginn Jr. (career-high 175 yards) and the Dolphins last week.
The Jets' fourth-ranked run defense will likely be without linebacker David Harris, who is battling a pulled groin.
The Dolphins are in last place. The Broncos are in first. Yet their records are only one game apart.
For all of the hype surrounding Miami's "Wildcat" formation, the Dolphins rank 21st in the NFL in rushing. Since unveiling it against the Patriots in Week 3, the Dolphins rushing totals have decreased every week, as opponents became better prepared. Last week against the Bills, Miami netted only 52 rushing yards.
Enter the Broncos defense, which ranks near the bottom of the NFL in almost everything. Denver's run defense is particularly bad, ranking 31st out of 32 teams and coming off a Week 7 debacle against the Patriots. In other words, look for the Dolphins running back tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to come out strong.
If the Dolphins defense can slow the Broncos' air attack - no easy task - Miami can win this. Chad Pennington has proven that he can keep the Dolphins in any game. He garnered AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his 300-plus yard performance against the Bills last week.
At 3-4, the Dolphins are only two games back of the division lead, and they are the only AFC East team with a winning divisional record. The Broncos are the second straight division leader that the Dolphins have faced.
Of the AFC's "final four" from last year's playoffs, only one team has a winning record. Who'd have thought it would be the team that lost the NFL MVP in Week 1?
Tied for the division lead at 5-2, the Patriots have to be content with their position given all of the setbacks they have endured. Contrast that with the Colts, who sit at 3-4 after consecutive road losses.
With Tom Brady at the helm, the Patriots were 3-0 in regular-season games in Indianapolis. But now it's Matt Cassel's turn to duel with Peyton Manning.
Coming off his first career fourth-quarter comeback in a Week 8 victory over the visiting Rams, Cassel still needs to prove himself on the road. In three games away from Foxborough, Mass., Cassel has a 74.1 passer rating with only one touchdown pass and three interceptions. His job won't get any easier against a Colts pass defense that ranks second in the NFL.
The game might come down to the effectiveness of the Patriots running back corps. Despite all of the injuries, the New England ground game has been a key to its success. LaMont Jordan (calf) is expected back, while it appears Sammy Morris (knee) will not be ready to go. The Colts allow an average of 144.1 rushing yards per game, tied for 26th in the NFL.
1:00 PM ET Indianapolis Cincinnati 1:00 PM ET Atlanta Green Bay 1:00 PM ET Cleveland New England 1:00 PM ET Oakland New York 1:00 PM ET Detroit Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Miami Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET Buffalo Tampa Bay 1:00 PM ET Kansas City Washington 1:00 PM ET Minnesota Baltimore 4:05 PM ET Tennessee Denver 4:25 PM ET St. Louis Arizona 4:25 PM ET New York San Diego 4:25 PM ET Seattle San Francisco 8:30 PM ET Carolina New Orleans