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Game Rankings: Week 9 shapes up with more wraps than footlongs on menu


Tony Romo finds himself back in the familiar spot of having to prove his mettle. (US Presswire)  
Tony Romo finds himself back in the familiar spot of having to prove his mettle. (US Presswire)  

Very mediocre week to me.

It's the week of the wrap. Not too many games where both teams are better than .500 -- actually just two to be exact, and one is the AFC wild-card showdown between the Dolphins and Colts (raise your hand if you saw that coming!). I found myself feeling pretty wrappy this week, doling out wrap designations all over the place (perhaps because I was listening to BDP while putting this together?).

On the bright side, I didn't identify too many absolute stinkers, just a lot of middling games between largely middling teams yet to fully distinguish themselves. Don't get me wrong, some of those clubs could have a second-half run in them, but they're going to have to start showing something here soon, and many of them this week.

Otherwise, without a W, you could truly start to close the 2012 chapter on some of these teams, coaches (probably GMs too) and thinking about what is to come in 2013. Because even in this era of parity, in the NFC in particular, it's going to be damn difficult to get back in this thing if you are carrying three wins or fewer after Week 9.


Pittsburgh Steelers  at  New York Giants

Pittsburgh at N.Y. Giants
Sunday, Nov. 4, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Two storied franchises, two perennial Super Bowl powers, two of the best six quarterbacks in the NFL. Who isn't all about that? The Steelers expect top RB Rashard Mendenhall back and are stabilizing under a reshuffled offensive line. Eli Manning comes in off his worst game of the season but yet won again and had another fourth-quarter charge. And Ben Roethlisberger, statically speaking, has been much better than Eli, taking fewer sacks and throwing fewer picks than the norm, with a stellar 14-3 TD-to-INT ratio and a 103 rating. This is a clash of true NFL titans and one of the best AFC/NFC matchups you could hope for.

What To Watch For: Can the Steelers secondary hold up against this deep group of receivers, and does Ike Taylor take on Hakeem Nicks or Victor Cruz? ... The Steelers defense keeps getting knocked, but it's allowing just 274 yards per game and shut down RGIII one week after he ran (and threw) wild on the Giants ... New York really relying on turnover ratio -- and picks in particular -- to win close games (safety Stevie Brown suddenly a ballhawk with five picks already). Giants plus 13 compared to the Steelers plus 1 ... Will the Giants slow down Pittsburgh on third down? Steelers lead the NFL in that regard ... Giants better find a linebacker who can stay with TE Heath Miller (Michael Boley maybe?), because he is getting in the end zone inside the red zone.

Miami Dolphins  at  Indianapolis Colts

Miami at Indianapolis
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: This is a wild-card game, people. These two teams are firmly in the hunt for the sixth seed, if not higher, and both are surging. The Colts continue to find ways to win games late, and are riding an emotional wave since coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer. The Dolphins have been one of the big surprises in the NFL after another awkward offseason, and the winner of this one is very well positioned to make noise in the second half. Two of the more successful rookie quarterbacks are also in line to play (assuming Ryan Tannehill can bounce back from last week's injuries) and the Colts, and quarterback Andrew Luck, have been damn tough at home in particular (ask the Packers). But can they continue to win with a minus-10 turnover ratio, and do they have enough playmakers on defense to hold up as teams begin to take them more seriously if they stick around in the playoff hunt?

What To Watch For: Pagano has been out of the hospital and in some team meetings, and you can't help but wonder how wild the crowd would get should he be able to make any sort of appearance at this game Sunday, even if just on a Jumbotron ... Reggie Bush needs to get it cranking again, and hasn't been quite the same since getting nicked up against the Jets in Week 3. Bush had 50 carries for 302 yards, two touchdowns (6 yard per carry average) in the first three weeks and has 62 carries for 191 yards (3 yard per carry average) and one touchdown in four games since. He had nine runs of 10 yards or more in the first three games and has six in the four games since. Of course, the Colts are allowing 4.8 yards per carry, so ... If Dolphins backup Matt Moore goes, expect him to play well. He was great on the road a week ago against the Jets.

Dallas Cowboys  at  Atlanta Falcons

Dallas at Atlanta
Sunday, Nov. 4, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why To Watch: We can only imagine the facial contortions and body-language gymnastics that Jerry Jones can come up with should the Falcons thump his team and send them spiraling further down the NFC standings. That alone could be delicious television. Atlanta is rolling people at 7-0 and is especially dangerous in its home dome, while the Cowboys absorbed another self-inflicted defeat (losses to the Giants and Baltimore recently have been particularly trying). Which Tony Romo shows up on national television? And what a marvelous stage for Matt Ryan to continue his MVP credentials should he continue to play as he has so far in 2012.

What To Watch For: Dez Bryant is good for at least one mental blunder every week -- whether on offense or special teams -- and he proves that on a weekly basis. If DeMarco Murray is out again, will Felix Jones be able to give a real lift to the Dallas running game? ... Both teams have tight ends as their leading receivers and for all of their outside options, the tight ends between the hash marks is where the ball often goes, especially on third down ... Cowboys secondary is much improved -- but also getting banged up -- and they will be tested early and often here ... Romo has a 127 career rating in two games against the Falcons, and Atlanta will have to find a way to scheme up more pressure in this one; good thing Mike Nolan is their coordinator, because his versatility has been key ... Tend to think the loss of Dallas star LB Sean Lee shows up more in this one that it did a week ago.


Denver Broncos  at  Cincinnati Bengals

Denver at Cincinnati
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Peyton Manning is up to his old tricks, and that's a good thing for Broncos fans. It's pretty hard to not to watch him, especially when he's in prime time almost every week -- but this is a 1 p.m. ET game that the Bengals badly need or they risk falling off the pace as other AFC teams make moves toward a wild card spot. Worth noting Manning is 7-0 all-time against the Bengals with 17 TDs, 3 INTs and a 107 rating. Manning and Cincy QB Andy Dalton are the two top-rated fourth-quarter QBS in the AFC, so if it's a close game things could get interesting. Broncos have a chance to begin really pulling away in the AFC West, especially if the Chargers and Raiders lose.

What To Watch For: Damaryius Thomas vs. Leon Hall could well dictate the game. Thomas becoming more of a vertical guy each week hooking up with Manning ... Then again, A.J. Green vs. Champ Bailey isn't a bad one-on-one, either (Green has a TD catch in six straight games) ... Broncos LB Wesley Woodyard is an emerging force with a nose for the ball, posting a sack and an interception last week ... Bengals DT Geno Akins will be a unique test for the interior of Denver's offensive line, which has kept Manning in pristine shape the past month or so in particular ... Both Willis McGahee and Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis unable to hold on to the ball as well as they should.  

Baltimore Ravens  at  Cleveland Browns

Baltimore at Cleveland
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Ravens coach John Harbaugh called this a must-win game for his team, and I'd tend to agree with him. The Browns nearly beat the Ravens in Baltimore earlier this season, they are rolling after posting a few recent wins and Baltimore has been very vulnerable to letdown performances on the road the past few years. Could be a big trap game, especially with Trent Richardson coming off his best day yet and Baltimore's rush defense allowing 200 yards per game the past three outings. As good as Baltimore's record is, the team has major issues and needs a win to get into the second half of the season or the Steelers and others could pass them by.

What To Watch For: Will Joe Flacco be abysmal on the road again, with his receivers unable to gain separation and the protection sagging? ... Will Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron cave to conventional wisdom, dial back the first-down passes, re-establish Ray Rice and get fullback Vonta Leach and the tight ends more involved in the power game? ... Ravens have won nine straight in the series but most have been very close ... Ravens first visit to Cleveland since former Browns/Ravens owner Art Modell passed away and emotions always run high for these meetings from the fans ... Browns defense much more potent since Joe Haden returned from suspension ... Browns WR Josh Gordon is getting better each week and leads all rookies in receiving yards ... Terrell Suggs could be ready for a big game after shining in his season debut against Houston following an Achilles injury.


Philadelphia Eagles  at  New Orleans Saints

Philadelphia at New Orleans
Monday, Nov. 5, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why To Watch: Could be Mike Vick's last stand as Eagles quarterback and Marty Mornhinweg's last stand as Eagles offensive coordinator. The loser of this game could forget about any chance of the playoffs (if they have any real hope now). In fact, a bevy of Eagles might not want to board the flight home should they drop this game. There could be a drinking game in here somewhere with the lack of sacks and the inability of either team to get a key stop. So much for this as a potential preview of the NFC Championship Game, but with the intrigue about Philadelphia's future and the collective defensive struggles, it could be an entertaining contest.

What To Watch For: Another game crying out for a heavy dose of Shady McCoy, but is the Eagles coaching staff capable of delivering it? ... Brees has actually thrown as many interceptions as Vick, not that the Eagles have proven capable of taking advantage of such deficiencies this season ... Two of the poorest tackling secondaries in the NFL ... Seems like Saints TE Jimmy Graham is being pretty severely hobbled by his painful ankle injury and isn't his explosive self ... For a massive target, watch Marques Colston get down low to scoop up the ball when Brees fires low ... Saints still unable to get running game going, but Darren Sproles figures to see a bunch of the ball in space Monday night ... Second straight Monday night game for the Saints, so it ends up feeling like a normal week for them.

Minnesota Vikings  at  Seattle Seahawks

Minnesota at Seattle
Sunday, Nov. 4, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch:  Another statement game for somebody here. Both teams looked like upstarts and capable of making a move, but have limitations with their young quarterbacks and have fallen back to the pack and don't seem to be engendering much belief lately. They can't get much going downfield and they aren't very good away from home; luckily for the Seahawks they are home. And this game is a home run for anyone who loves powerful running backs who run angry; Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch are as eager to run over a defender as anyone in the league.

What To Watch For: Sidney Rice and his offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, get a look at their former team at a time when both are being called on for some creativity ... Does Russell Wilson need another big game at home to stave off Matt Flynn to keep his starting job? ... Christian Ponder needs to protect the football more effectively and get the ball to Percy Harvin off the line of scrimmage, and I tend to think this crowd will have him going to his hots even more quickly and very limited in his yards per attempt ... Seahawks physical corners will squat on some of the shorter routes ... Can TE Zach Miller be a viable pass-catching option for the Seahawks for a second straight game?  

Detroit Lions  at  Jacksonville Jaguars

Detroit at Jacksonville
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: Is this the week when Matt Stafford starts putting up eye-popping numbers through an entire game and looks consistent and Calvin Johnson gets off to a fast start and the Lions actually don't need a wild scramble late to win a game? Have the Lions, who really wanted to be aggressive in the trade market this week, done enough before the deadline to make an impact and be in position to make a run in the very deep NFC? Will the Jags get across midfield more than once? Averaging 250 yards of total offense is pretty staggering and limiting.

What To Watch For: The Lions are desperate to get back to .500, and despite their struggles, they are still averaging over 400 yards of offense per game. Cliff Avril is rounding into form after his holdout to get the pass rush going on defense ... Never easy to be traded, but this is an Ichiro situation for Lions WR Mike Thomas, who was acquired from the Jags this week ... Stafford has 1,800 yards, 17 TDs, and 1 INT in his last six games against the AFC, with a 112 rating ... Cecil Shorts emerging as a go-to guy for Blaine Gabbert ... With Johnson not quite himself and Nate Burleson hurt, Titus Young is likely to see ample targets for Lions ... Give the Jags credit for playing the tough NFC North tight, except for their blowout loss to Chicago.

Buffalo Bills  at  Houston Texans

Buffalo at Houston
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Surely the Texans will set an offensive record of some kind here. The Bills defense is chronically bad, former Texan Mario Williams has all kind of excuses for his miserable play, including a wrist injury now that required recent surgery. Arian Foster could go for 200 yards easy -- just ask Chris Johnson -- and Matt Schaub figures to have all day in the pocket for Houston. If the Bills are going to make it a game, running backs Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller (averaging a staggering 7.3 yards per carry) need to see a lot of the ball. And I suppose it's worth noting the Bills are 2-0 all-time at Houston.

What To Watch For: Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown nine INTs already and J.J. Watt will get his hands on some of his passes for sure ... Both teams come in off the bye, so you would think they are fresh and crisp ... Stevie Johnson has three TDs of 25 yards or more, but will Jonathan Joseph allow him to get going Sunday? ... Both tight ends in this game, Scott Chandler and Owen Daniels, have a nose for the end zone in clutch and short-yardage situations ... Bills allow huge plays to opposing defenses at an alarming rate, but did they make any changes for the better in scheme coming off the bye and coming off a brutal loss to the Titans?

Arizona Cardinals  at  Green Bay Packers

Arizona at Green Bay
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: Could the Packers struggle again against an inferior opponent after already losing to the Colts and after nearly blowing it against Jacksonville last week? Will either team be able to establish any semblance of a run game? With Aaron Rodgers vs. John Skelton, will it even matter? The Cards horrible offensive line has undermined all of the good the defense and injured quarterback Kevin Kolb established in September and this could continue their freefall, although it wasn't all that long ago these two met in what was an epic playoff game (though my buddy Kurt Warner had a little something to do with that).

What To Watch For: Arizona's defense getting weary from the lack of any ball control game from its offense, and if that part of the game slips, the Cards seem doomed ... Could be another three-plus sack game for Clay Matthews, against a team with no tackles to speak of ... Have a feeling Cards LB Daryl Washington gets off on Green Bay's suspect offensive line as well ... For all the issues about Green Bay's secondary, rookie Casey Hayward already has four interceptions ... Will Alex Green remain the Packers' running back du jour?

Chicago Bears  at  Tennessee Titans

Chicago at Tennessee
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: Anyone who doesn't really believe in the Bears got more ammo last week, as they were damn lucky to win over Carolina and the offense had one of its periodic meltdowns. And the Titans are in trouble after losing a heartbreaker to the Colts. If they drop this one, don't be surprised if all of a sudden Jake Locker is healthy again and ready to play quarterback (and if Matt Hasselbeck pulls this off then forget about Locker for a while). And the Bears defense is making everyone look a little silly with them already returning six INTs for TDs in seven games. The best offense is a good defense, indeed, or something like that.

What To Watch For: For all of Cutler's accolades, he has just one more TD than INT (9/8) and a passer rating below 80 (and worse than Hasselbeck's this season). He also needs to find a way to get someone other than Brandon Marshall going, because it tends to be a very one-dimensional aerial attack ... Chris Johnson all of a sudden is averaging a healthy 4.5 yards per carry and there is no doubt that Hasselbeck's more refined pocket presence opens up things for him in the run game ... Titans have the worst defense in the NFL and probably don't have any answer for Matt Forte ... Rookie WR Kendall Wright a true complement to top option Kenny Britt ... Bears allowing league best 62 quarterback rating against; Titans allowing 106 rating against, second-worst in the NFL (to only the Saints).

Carolina Panthers  at  Washington Redskins

Carolina at Washington
Sunday, Nov. 4, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: I don't care about their records or playoff hopes or any of that stuff. Live in this moment. Cam Newton vs. Robert Griffin III for the first time ever. This is special. These two dudes are ridiculous athletic talents and have the ability to transcend and transform the quarterback position, and don't let Newton's sophomore slump fool you -- he can still make unreal plays. And no one has been more exciting this season than RGIII. After all of the tough losses and despair for the Panthers, expect Cam to be plenty fired up here against one of the NFL's worst secondaries, while the Redskins badly need a win to stay on the periphery of the playoff hunt.

What To Watch For: At some point do the Redskins expand the passing offense and risk a few more turnovers in exchange for a few more downfield pass plays? This might not be the worst week to try that out ... Charles Johnson starting to play elite football for the Panthers and could have favorable matchups Sunday ... Figure to see ageless linebacker London Fletcher running with Panthers TE Greg Olsen on Sunday. He refuses to slow down despite injuries and anything else ... Santana Moss has five TDs, and Steve Smith has yet to get in the end zone, but Smith owns the Redskins and I bet that drought ends here (going for fourth straight game of five catches or more against the Skins) ... Logan Paulsen and Niles Paul did admirable job of filling in for injured starter Fred Davis last week ... Could Panthers star rookie LB Luke Kuechly end up having to shadow fellow rookie RGIII a little bit in this one? Worth keeping an eye on.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at  Oakland Raiders

Tampa Bay at Oakland
Sunday, Nov. 4, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: Another game in which the winner will be .500 and have some hope, and the loser will probably be out of it. Both teams playing pretty decent football lately and both embattled quarterbacks posting some pretty impressive numbers recently. And the Bucs finally have some road swag after ending a long slump away from home at Minnesota. They're also well rested off that Thursday night game, and exuding a kind of physical style that had been missing there for far too long. Bucs also going for a fourth straight game with at least 28 points, which would be a franchise record.

What To Watch For: Don't look now, but Josh Freeman is at the top of his game after an awful start, and has 14 TDs to just five INTs and a 93 rating. He's also been taking better care of the football all around, with the Bucs holding a plus-7 turnover ratio ... Vincent Jackson knows all about the Raiders secondary from his time in San Diego, and he has at least one TD catch in four of last five against Oakland ... Will Darren McFadden ever get it going and adapt to this zone scheme in play now? ... Bucs rookie RB Doug Martin the only player in the NFC with at least 500 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards ... Maybe the two best punter/kicker tandems in the NFL on display in this one; field position could be a struggle.

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.

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