We’re nine weeks into the 2012 season and more than half of the NFL’s 32 teams have at least four wins. The playoff picture is anything but clear as the NFL’s middle class—practically a quarter of the league—21 teams have 3, 4, or 5 wins--is battling to make the leap into the sport’s upper echelon and avoiding a spot in the top 15 of next year’s NFL Draft. The Eagles and Cowboys are in complete desperation mode, the Falcons have revenge on their minds, and the Ravens are looking to stay a game up on the Steelers in the AFC North. That’s just the start of it. Here are Peter Schrager’s 10 NFL Storylines to watch:
The Rams need to win a game on the road. Is this the week they finally do?
Probably not. Listen, I love the turnaround story in St. Louis as much as the next guy, but the Rams aren’t going anywhere this season if they don’t win a game outside of St. Louis. They’re 3-5 on the year, but they’re 0-3 in all games played outside of the Edward Jones Dome. Jeff Fisher’s had a long trip back from Europe and a bye week to prepare for the 49ers. I can’t put the Rams in any serious playoff conversations if they come out flat. Then again, they’ll be 3-6 with a loss, and any “serious playoff conversations” won’t really be happening, anyway. It’s one thing to be a tough, young team at home in a dome. It’s an entirely other thing to be able to pack the bags and win in a rival’s building. Let’s see if this Rams team has that in them.
It’s the John Fox Bowl in Carolina and the Cats have a chance.
Despite a Super Bowl appearance and countless other trips to the playoffs during his tenure as head coach in Carolina, John Fox was unceremoniously shown the door after a putrid 2010 campaign. He was quickly scooped up by Denver, handed Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow, and asked to turn around the Broncos. He did. A season later, Peyton Manning’s under center and it looks like Denver could be the team to beat in the AFC. As for his old team? It has been a rough year, but at 2-6 with a road win in Washington a week ago now under their belt, they could play the role of “spoiler” from here on out. Fox should receive a warm reception Sunday, but don’t expect his old squad to take it easy on his new one.
The Bills’ $200 million defensive line vs. Tom Brady.
New Coke. Crystal Clear Pepsi. That “John Carter” movie. The Bills defensive line isn’t the worst $200 million investment we’ve seen, but it might be on the top 10 list. New England dropped a 50-burger on the Bills defense in Week 3 and though Mario Williams recorded a sack versus Houston a week ago, he hasn’t had the breakout year many in Western New York were hoping for. The Bills have lost 21 of their past 23 games versus New England. If there ever was a game for this defensive line — one that the front office is seriously invested in — to make a difference, it’s this one.
The Texans and Bears both want to make statements in front of a somewhat cynical national audience.
The Texans are 7-1, but in their one Sunday night game this season, they got blown out by the Packers in Houston. The Bears are 7-1, but none of those seven teams had winning records when Chicago beat them. There’s lots of positive media around both teams right now, but the Patriots, 49ers, Falcons, Giants and Packers still seem to be the Vegas favorites in terms of the Super Bowl. This one’s a nationally televised game and both teams will have an opportunity to silence their doubters. Defense should lead the way for three quarters, but I’m curious to see which quarterback makes the big play down the stretch. Neither Jay Cutler nor Matt Schaub has had to throw his squad on his back and win his team a game this season.
It’s Carroll versus Sanchez in Seattle, but it’s also Irvin vs. Coples
The Mark Sanchez-Pete Carroll storyline gets all the media attention in New York, Seattle, and even Los Angeles this week, but I’m intrigued by the Bruce Irvin vs. Quinton Coples subplot in Sunday’s Seahawks-Jets game. The Seahawks — to the surprise of many — took Irvin with the 15th overall pick in April’s draft. A pick later, New York selected Coples, the massive defensive end out of North Carolina. Eight games into the season, Irvin’s recorded five sacks but just eight tackles on the year. Coples has two sacks and 11 tackles. Both players were selected before New England standout Chandler Jones. On the same field on Sunday, keep an eye on the two rookie pass rushers. They’ll be compared side-by-side for years to come.
Are the Falcons just a bunch of nice guys who win regular season games?
It was 38-16 on a nationally televised Monday Night Football game, the outcome had long been decided, and Sean Payton trotted Drew Brees on to the field so he could throw some more and break the single-season passing yardage record in Week 16. Payton wanted that record on Week 16 versus the rival Falcons. A year later, Atlanta’s 8-0 and going back to New Orleans. Despite five more wins and a huge lead in the standings, they’re only field goal favorites over the Saints. It’s as if no one — Vegas, pundits, the rest of the league — actually believes in Atlanta. Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, and Mike Smith are all nice, soft-spoken guys. But does anyone see them as Super Bowl champs? Beat the snot out of the Saints on Sunday, get some revenge for running up the score a year ago, and that tune might change.
Two NFC North ships are passing in the night…or, the standings.
The Lions and Vikings played in Week 4 and the final score didn’t tell the whole story. Minnesota won that one played in Detroit 20-13, but anyone who watched it could tell you that it felt like 100-0. Six weeks later, the two teams are going in completely opposite directions. Minnesota’s now lost two in a row and three of its past four, while Detroit — once a struggling 1-4 team — are winners of their past three. The Vikings were a beautiful and surprising September storyline and the Lions were considered the league’s biggest disappointment early. Things are starting to shake themselves out now. This one’s being played in Minnesota. If the Lions win, Minnesota has road games in Chicago and Green Bay up ahead after their bye. They need to win this one to stay in the NFC playoff mix.
This may be the 'Do or Die' game for the Michael Vick Era in Philly
The Cowboys have lost two in a row, the Eagles have lost four consecutive, and both teams are fading fast from the Giants in the NFC East standings. Philly’s in more desperate shape, though. If the Eagles lose, it may, at last, mean a changing of the guard at quarterback. Philadelphia still has four nationally televised games after Sunday’s meeting with the Cowboys. Can they continue to trot out Michael Vick as the quarterback? Or will it be time to insert rookie Nick Foles? Win this one Sunday, and you’re a 4-5 team still in the thick of it. Lose, and you’re 3-6 with a game against a porous Redskins defense up ahead. There may be no better team in the league to get a rookie’s feet wet than Washington.
Vincent Jackson takes on his former team
A lot of NFL media folks snickered and shrugged when the Buccaneers signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson to a five-year $55 million deal over the summer. It was viewed by many as a desperate move by a franchise taking swings for the fence in just about any way it could in free agency. Sure enough, we’re nine weeks into the season and Jackson has been a revelation in Tampa Bay. He had never topped 10 TDs or 1,200 yards in eight seasons with the Chargers. He’s on pace for 1,400 yards and a career-high 12 touchdowns this season. Though he’d likely never publicly admit it, I’m sure Philip Rivers would gladly take him on the Chargers roster this season. San Diego’s top wideout is Malcolm Floyd. He has 509 yards and just two TDs.
What's up with Eli?
It’s the elephant in the room in New York sports conversations this week: What’s up with Eli? Aside from his big fourth-quarter pass to Victor Cruz three weeks ago against the Redskins, Manning has struggled immensely in New York’s past three outings. The passing game has been off, the defense has been asked to carry the load more than usual, and Eli has looked…well, off. His 10-of-25, 125-yard, 1-INT, 0-TD stat line against the Steelers was the worst outing he has had as a pro since 2008. Cincinnati has lost four consecutive games, but that front four can get to the quarterback. Eli’s brother Peyton shrugged off two interceptions to lead Denver to a fourth-quarter comeback in Cincy on Sunday. If the Giants don’t win, they’ve got a rested Packers team awaiting them in Week 12.