- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Even though three-quarters of the AFC West and the Miami Dolphins are on byes, the AFC has a chance for its best week.
Why? There are no interconference games. The AFC came out of the first six weeks of the season beaten and embarrassed. The NFC beat the AFC in 19 of 28 games. As a result, what looks like parity is more "poor-ity." The only AFC teams with winning records are the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens, and both teams were bludgeoned in different ways last week.
The Texans were blown away at home by the Green Bay Packers. The Ravens had to place linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb on the injured reserve, more bad news for a defense giving up more than 200 yards a game on the ground the past two games.
In Philadelphia, Andy Reid sacked defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and started an extensive evaluation of every part of his team after a 3-3 start. In the AFC, 3-3 is the norm. The entire AFC East is at 3-3, and Denver and San Diego are tied for the AFC West lead with 3-3 records.
At least the 12 AFC teams playing in Week 7 don't face NFC teams and won't have to feel inferior.
1. The Band-Aid Bowl: The Baltimore-Houston game is perhaps the headliner of the week. But both teams have major injury concerns. The Texans and Ravens are trying to adjust to losses at inside linebacker, but the cornerback injuries might have a bigger impact. Webb was the Ravens' best coverage cornerback, and his replacement, Jimmy Smith, is ailing. He has an abdominal injury, which is preventing him from practicing.
The Texans are concerned about Johnathan Joseph's groin injury. He's been playing with the groin pull the past two weeks, and his play has declined significantly. The addition of Joseph last year helped turn around a historically horrible pass defense in 2010 and made it one of the best in the sport. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips values man-to-man coverage players, and he's going to need good coverage to contain Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. To compensate for the losses on defense, the Ravens will have to rely more on their offense to win. The offense still has problems matching up against man-to-man defense if an opponent's top corner takes away Smith. Will the Ravens use former Texan Jacoby Jones this week more than the 16 or 17 plays he's been on the field the past few weeks? Jones has 4.3-second 40-yard-dash speed and could open up room for the other Ravens receivers.
2. Filling the holes in the middle: The Texans, Ravens and Packers are adjusting to the losses of inside linebackers. The Texans aren't pinning their 42-24 loss to the Green Bay on Brian Cushing's season-ending knee injury, but the loss of Cushing will have a bigger impact in Sunday's game against the Ravens. Packers running backs gained only 88 rushing yards against the patched-up middle of the defense. Ray Rice could rip apart that middle. John Harbaugh might be tempted to use more two-tight end sets to keep the Texans in their base 3-4, and see whether Rice can beat inside linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bradie James. Since last year, the Texans have lost DeMeco Ryans and Cushing. Opponents have spread the field with receivers against the Texans and gotten them out of their 3-4 on 213 of 360 snaps.
Dannell Ellerbe will be challenged filling in for Lewis more in this game than in any other down the stretch. The Texans run a complex zone-blocking scheme, and Matt Schaub works well rolling out. If Ellerbe gets caught out of position, Arian Foster and the Texans' running backs could have a big day.
3. Will the real surprise team claim your prize: No one expected the Week 7 meeting of the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings to feature two 4-2 teams. The Vikings were humbled a little last week in a 38-26 loss to the Washington Redskins, but stopping Robert Griffin III has been a problem for everyone. The Cardinals enter this game with more problems. They've lost two in a row, and they are making yet another change at quarterback. John Skelton is back; Kevin Kolb suffered a bad rib injury that will sideline him for weeks.
The Cardinals' problems at tackle leave Skelton in a tough spot. Cardinals tackles D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie have given up a combined 16.5 sacks. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has to be thinking he's going to have a big day. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder is protected by tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, who have given up a combined four sacks. Ponder can always dump off passes quickly to Percy Harvin on bubble screens, too.
4. The non-common denominator: NFL schedules are very structured. Teams in division play 14 common games. The remaining two games are determined by where teams place within their division. Week 7 is a big week for non-common games, featuring three: Cleveland-Indianapolis, Baltimore-Houston and Jacksonville-Oakland. After Sunday, 23 of the 32 non-common games will have been played. The AFC North will be the first division to exhaust its non-common games. The Steelers and Bengals are each 1-1 in their two non-common games, so the Ravens will gain a game on both if they beat the Texans and go 2-0 in the non-commons. The Raiders were hoping to take advantage of their third-place schedule to stay with the Broncos and Chargers, but a loss to the Jaguars will leave them 0-2 in non-commons (they lost on the road to the Dolphins). The Browns-Colts game is a matchup of two fourth-place teams from 2011.
5. Stoking the rivalries: The Sunday night game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals highlights a week in which there are six divisional games. This is the Steelers' first game in the AFC North. They struggled through a 2-3 start with an aging, injured defense and a banged-up ground game. The Bengals are catching the Steelers at a good time. The Steelers won't have safety Troy Polamalu patrolling the middle of the field. But a Bengals loss could destine them to yet another third-place finish in this division. It would put them at 1-3 in the AFC North with tough road trips to Pittsburgh and Baltimore yet to come. The Steelers have won 12 of their past 16 games against the Bengals, who are on a two-game losing streak. Another interesting divisional matchup will be Tampa Bay against New Orleans. The Saints couldn't afford to keep Carl Nicks, one of the league's best guards. They could benefit from the return of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is fighting his suspension stemming from the bounty scandal.
6. A Giant step toward controlling the NFC East: Sometimes, the Giants are baffling. They can go on the road and blow out the 49ers. They can get hot late in the second half of the season and rip through the rest of the league and win Super Bowls. Yet in the past three seasons, they have been average within their division. They went 3-3 in NFC East games in 2010 and 2011 and already have lost to Dallas and Philadelphia this year. A home loss to the Redskins would hurt. It's hard to believe the Giants won a Super Bowl in a season in which Washington swept them, but the Redskins won both games in 2011. Now they come to town with Griffin. RG3 is completing 70 percent of his passes and is on pace for a 1,000-yard rushing season. The Giants' defense has to find ways of stopping him in the red zone.
7. The Lions get bearish when they are behind: Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler will try to put up a quick lead against the Detroit Lions on Monday night, but that might be a problem for the Bears. The Lions play their best when they are behind. Matthew Stafford is completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 1,215 yards when the Lions are trailing. He's attempted only 19 passes with the lead. Three of those passes were intercepted. The Bears figure to get out to a lead. Lovie Smith is 5-1 against Jim Schwartz. The Lions have scored only 50 points in the first three quarters of games. They've scored 73 points in the fourth quarter.
8. Tale of two offenses: The Patriots run a high-tech offense. Bill Belichick will either spread the field with receivers or use a fast-tempo running offense out of two-tight end sets. The Jets run a train-wreck offense. The Tim Tebow Wildcat is averaging only 3 yards a play. Although people talk about Mark Sanchez's improvement, he's putting up Tebow-like passing numbers. He's completing only 49.7 percent of his passes. For his career, he has never averaged better than 6.7 yards an attempt, and he's been at 6.5 or 6.4 for the past three years. Still, the Jets and Patriots are part of a four-way tie for first in the AFC East. Rex Ryan still talks about how he can beat the Patriots, but those words don't seem to be as convincing lately.
9. Clock management seminar: The Dallas-Carolina matchup features two offenses that can't get over the top in the fourth quarter. A Cam Newton fumble prevented the Panthers from getting a critical first down in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. A goal-line stand by the Seattle Seahawks' defense cost the Panthers another game. Newton has been taking these losses hard, and he needs a victory to get more positive vibes going in the locker room. Poor clock management by Cowboys coach Jason Garrett in the final seconds in Baltimore cost the team. Garrett had time to run one more play to set up an easier field goal, but the clock ticked down and the Cowboys missed the long field goal. If this game is close, who knows what will happen?
10. Climbing back: The Packers looked as though they were back with Sunday night's victory over the Texans. This week, they travel to another dome -- the Edward Jones Dome -- for a winnable game against a combative St. Louis Rams team. Jeff Fisher has brought a great attitude to the Rams. No matter the opponent, the Rams don't concede. This might be a tougher game than expected.
The Buffalo Bills finally got better play out of their defense in a 19-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals. They play a Tennessee Titans team that salvaged the first half of the season with a Thursday night win over the Steelers. Both teams have problems on defense. The Bills are giving up 32 points a game. The Titans are surrendering 34. This could be a high-scoring game.
The NFC has dominated interconference games, John Clayton writes, but the AFC gets a break from that in Week 7.