(1). Will the Giants use the same defensive formula that helped Pittsburgh shut down Tom Brady? After the G-Men blew a late lead in their Week 5 home game against the lowly Seahawks, my buddy Doug, an ardent Big Blue fan, texted a despondent message (preceded by an expletive): “We’re awful.” I was thinking of his blood pressure last week when the winless Dolphins jumped out to a 14–3 advantage at the Meadowlands. But New York rallied to secure a three-point victory, and this Sunday it faces Tom Brady & Co. in Foxborough. Week 8 saw the Pittsburgh Steelers hold Brady to his lowest yardage total of the season by ditching their customary zone defense in favor of man-to-man coverage. “Man defenses give the Patriots problems because New England doesn’t have great speed,” explains ESPN analyst John Clayton. “Brady’s game is creating matchup problems with a two-tight end formation, which the Patriots use 43 times a game on average.” Now, obviously, if stopping Brady were as easy as playing man coverage instead of zone, everyone would do it. Pittsburgh has the top pass defense in football, while the NFC East–leading Giants (5–2) are currently ranked 13th (out of 32 teams) in fewest passing yards allowed per game. As for the New England pass defense, it got shredded by Ben Roethlisberger and is still ranked dead last, which is good news for Eli Manning and his talented young receiving corps.
(2). Are the 6–2 Steelers now the AFC’s best team? Following their big win over the Patriots (5–2), they leapfrogged New England in the power rankings. Yet as Jeff Darlington notes at NFL.com, only two of Pittsburgh’s six victories (against New England and Tennessee) have been genuinely impressive wins. The other four were against opponents with a combined record of 5–25, and one of those came courtesy of a last-second field goal against arguably the worst team in football (Indianapolis). On the other hand, Pittsburgh has a truly elite quarterback, and its defense is ranked second in fewest yards allowed per game. The top overall defense belongs to the 5–2 Baltimore Ravens, who trounced the Steelers 35–7 in Week 1. Baltimore visits Heinz Field this Sunday for the latest installment in what may be the NFL’s most ferocious rivalry.
(3). What will Philadelphia do for an encore? To paraphrase Al Pacino: Just when we thought the Eagles were out, they pulled themselves back in (to the NFC playoff race). Their 34–7 thumping of the Dallas Cowboys was a performance worthy of the “dream team” label that backup QB Vince Young imprudently attached to Andy Reid’s squad during training camp. Despite carrying a less-than-stellar 3–4 record, Philly leads the NFL in both total yards per game and total rushing yards per game. Indeed, the Eagles racked up 239 rushing yards last Sunday against a run defense that had entered the game ranked No. 1 in the league. Their Week 9 opponent is the 4–3 Chicago Bears, who have won two straight (over Minnesota and Tampa Bay). The Bears are ranked 23rd in total yards allowed per game, but they have given up fewer than 290 yards in each of their last two contests, and their front seven is anchored by a potential Hall of Famer (middle linebacker Brian Urlacher).
(4). Will 4–3 Kansas City extend its surprising four-game win streak? After the Chiefs lost their first two games by a combined score of 89–10, many considered them a prime candidate to win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. But they have reeled off four consecutive victories, beating a very bad team (Indianapolis), a very mediocre team (Minnesota), an injury-ravaged team with a volatile QB situation (Oakland), and a perennial underachiever with oodles of talent (San Diego). To be sure, the Chargers were poised to defeat Kansas City with a chip-shot field goal before San Diego QB Philip Rivers fumbled a snap and gave the Chiefs fresh life. Their subsequent overtime win vaulted them into a three-way tie for first place in the tumultuous AFC West. Starting in Week 10, the Chiefs host Denver, visit New England, host Pittsburgh, visit Chicago, visit the New York Jets, host Green Bay, host Oakland, and visit Denver — which makes their Week 9 home contest against the 0–7 Miami Dolphins a classic trap game. Kansas City should win; but this matchup strikes me as wildly unpredictable, especially given how close Miami came to upsetting the Giants in Week 8.
(5). Can injury-plagued Oakland bounce back against Tim Tebow? The 4–3 Raiders trail only Philadelphia in total rushing yards per game, and they have beaten both the 5–3 Texans and the 4–3 Jets. Yet Oakland has also suffered a rash of injuries, most notably QB Jason Campbell’s broken collarbone and running back Darren McFadden’s sprained foot. Campbell is done for the season, and McFadden will probably miss Sunday’s game against Denver (2–5). In the Raiders’ embarrassing 28–0 Week 7 home loss to the Chiefs, Oakland QBs Kyle Boller and the recently unretired Carson Palmer each tossed three interceptions and one pick-six. The Raiders enjoyed a bye in Week 8, so Palmer has now had a fortnight to learn the offense and develop greater rhythm with his wideouts. On Tuesday, Oakland signed veteran receiver T. J. Houshmandzadeh, his former Cincinnati teammate. Both have an opportunity to gain their first victory as Raiders when the Silver & Black host beleaguered Broncos QB Tim Tebow, whose critics have spent the past week claiming vindication.