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Peek at the Week: Big Ben vs. Eli; Romo, Eagles face internal battles

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Game of the week

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

The line: Giants by 3½

The story: The story within the story here is Ben Roethlisberger vs. Eli Manning. Both were chosen in the first round of the 2004 draft. Both are Super Bowl quarterbacks. And both are on track for the Hall of Fame. The question, of course, is which would you rather have? You can't go wrong with either, with Manning winning two of the past five Super Bowls and Roethlisberger two of the past seven.

Roethlisberger is known for making clutch throws in big games, but so is Eli. Roethlisberger is known for making big plays downfield, but so is Eli. Roethlisberger is known for his fourth-quarter heroics, but so is Eli. Including the playoffs, Manning won his past eight starts against the AFC. Now look at Roethlisbeger. He's 23-7 vs. the NFC.

So let's try this again: Who do you trust?

This game may help you decide, with the Giants favored because of the people Pittsburgh is missing (like safety Troy Polamalu, tackle Marcus Gilbert and, possibly, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Ryan Clark) and because the Giants are playing as well as they did down the stretch a year ago.

But the Giants have their own issues on defense, where safety Kenny Phillips has been sidelined the past four games and where safety Antrel Rolle may be out with concussion-like symptoms. But that's no problem when they can plug in Stevie Brown, the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his three takeaways (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) vs. Dallas. Brown has five interceptions this season, including four the past four weeks. His status depends on Rolle and Phillips, and both seem ready to return -- which could mean a return of last year's three-safety package.

That's the good news. The bad is that New York almost surely lines up without Chase Blackburn, sidelined by a hamstring injury. The Giants are working backup Mark Herzlich in his spot --- and that's a change that bears watching.

Of no concern, however, is the defensive line, where Chris Canty is back and so is the pass rush -- and it's about time. Where the Giants had eight sacks in their first five games they have 13 in their past three -- all victories.

That's another reason you have to like Big Blue here. Pittsburgh always has issues protecting Roethlisberger, and this year is no different. With a rotating cast of offensive linemen, he has been sacked 13 times which, frankly, isn't bad. Maybe that's why he has been so accurate and productive, throwing 14 touchdown passes and only three interceptions in an offense he once described as "dink and dunk."

If Big Ben has the time, he has the receivers to frazzle New York's corners, and that's where the Pittsburgh run game comes in. Until recently, the Steelers didn't have one. Then Jonathan Dwyer took over for the injured Rashard Mendenhall and became the team's first back in four years to produce back-to-back 100-yard games. Mendenhall and Dwyer are doubtful for this game, but there's always Isaac Redman.

All I know is that if the Steelers' run game is as successful as it has been the past few weeks the Giants may be forced to commit extra defenders to the line of scrimmage which, of course, makes them more vulnerable to the pass and easier for Roethlisberger to solve -- that is, if he's awake. The Steelers won't arrive at their hotel until Sunday morning because of power outages in the New York area.

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The back story: Since 2006 the Giants are 16-9 in regular-season games vs. the AFC, the second-best record in the NFC (only Atlanta at 19-9 is better). They are also 2-0 vs. the conference in Super Bowls in that time.

Three games I'd like to see

Denver at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Broncos by 3½

The story: The Broncos are hot, the Bengals are not, which is why this is supposed to be a walkover for Denver. Be careful, people. Cincinnati is dangerous, especially coming off a bye. Plus, the Bengals are home, and there's a feeling of desperation beginning to creep in -- something that can happen when you lose three straight.

If Cincinnati is going to make a run at the top of the AFC North it better start now. Of the Bengals' next nine games, four involve playoff teams from last year -- including thsee Broncos -- and Cincinnati must demonstrate it can beat one of them. It hasn't this season, and it didn't a year ago. Over the past two years the Bengals are 0-10 vs. playoff teams from 2011.

Maybe that's why coach Marvin Lewis delivered a straight-forward message to his team this week, saying he wanted his quarterback and middle linebacker to be ... uh, how do we put this? ... not so nice. The problem here, though, is not his quarterback; it's Denver's Peyton Manning. The Bengals couldn't beat Ryan Tannenhill, and they just lost to Brandon Weeden. So tell me: How are they going to defend Manning?

Well, one way is to pressure the pocket. Few teams are better than the Bengals, whose 23 sacks rank third in the NFL. But this is Manning, a guy who seldom gets hit, and these are the Broncos, a team that has surrendered 10 sacks in seven games. If Cincinnati can't pressure the pocket, I don't care what Andy Dalton does or says or is like. The Bengals have no shot.

The back story: The Bengals' A.J. Green has a touchdown catch in his past six games and has scored in each of Cincinnati's three home games this season. In his only appearance vs. Denver he had 10 catches for 124 yards and a score.

Miami at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Dolphins by 2½

The story: The Colts chose Andrew Luck with the first pick of the 2012 draft; the Dolphins chose Ryan Tannehill with the eighth. Now both are part of winning franchises. No, that is not a misprint. The Colts are second in their division and the Dolphins are second in the AFC East. So where this was once supposed to a meeting of have-nots, someone will be 5-3 and designated as a midseason surprise when it's over.

My guess? That team will be Miami. I know how much Luck means to Indianapolis, and I admire what he has done in his first seven games. But he will be missing tight end Coby Fleener, while cornerback Vontae Davis will be out, too. That doesn't mean the Colts can't win, but it handicaps their chances -- and with Miami on a three-game roll it doesn't need an advantage.

Even if Matt Moore were to start (Tannehill practiced Thursday despite a leg injury that makes him iffy for this one), the Dolphins should be OK, and there are a couple of reasons: 1) Reggie Bush; 2) Their defense. Both have been superb, with Miami allowing a conference-low 126 points, two fewer than Houston. The Dolphins have won five of their past six starts in Indy, and they're favored again -- not so much because people think Tannehill is superior to Luck ... because he's not ... but because the Dolphins are superior to Indianapolis.

Their running game is better. Their defense is better. And their special teams just came off a game where they blocked a punt, blocked a field goal and recovered an onside kick. Andrew Luck is good, but I don't know that he's good enough to overcome all that.

The back story: The Dolphins have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 straight games.

Dallas at Atlanta, 8:20 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Falcons by 4½

The story: Tony Romo wants his head coach to push the envelope with play calling, and I would say that sounds like a good idea; something, anything, to shake the Cowboys out of their midseason slump. They scored on four of five possessions last weekend against the Giants, then couldn't score when it mattered most -- and that's why Romo wants Jason Garrett to be more aggressive.

Someone must be because the unbeaten Falcons are coming off one of their best performances in a long time, a 30-17 destruction of Philadelphia where quarterback Matt Ryan was near perfect. Atlanta is a tough out at home, with the Falcons 29-6 under Mike Smith there (29-4 with Ryan), which is terrific, but their two closest calls this season were at the Georgia Dome.

They should've lost to Carolina, and they could've lost to Oakland.

For Dallas to pull the upset, Romo and teammates must clean up their mistakes. They committed six turnovers against the Giants, and have 19 for the season ... including 15 by Romo (13 interceptions, two fumbles) ... and that's important to remember because when Romo has more than one interception the Cowboys are doomed. They're 4-12.

I don't worry about Dallas' defense because it has been decent this season. The offense has not, and it's time to wake these guys up. If Romo can cut down on his raft of mistakes, Dallas has a chance. If they can try to make a commitment to the running game, even without DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys have a chance. But neither has happened so far, and maybe neither happens again.

With Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon sidelined by an ankle injury, the Cowboys should heed Romo's suggestion. It's time to get aggressive with the play calling.

The back story: The Cowboys have lost their past seven starts on Sunday night.

Monday night lights

Philadelphia at New Orleans, 8:30 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Saints by 3½

The Eagles' leaky defense might be the cure for what ails Drew Brees and the Saints. (AP)  
The Eagles' leaky defense might be the cure for what ails Drew Brees and the Saints. (AP)  
The story: Michael Vick might be ready "to make a playoff run," but the Eagles aren't -- at least not now. They must straighten out a defense that was positively dreadful last week vs. Atlanta, missing tackles, blowing assignments, committing stupid penalties and, in general, playing such flat football you wonder if anything can shake these guys out of their funk.

So that's one problem.

Then they must straighten out Vick and an offense that has been underwhelming all season, averaging 17 points a game and scoring more than 19 in only two of its seven starts. Vick has committed a Romo-like raft of turnovers this season -- 13 -- but he cleaned up his act last weekend. Unfortunately, he still couldn't lead his teammates to more than two touchdowns, and maybe this is the new normal for him and his teammates. Maybe they're just not the ballclub we thought they were.

Of course, if the Eagles are to make something happen, this is just the place. The Saints aren't bad on defense; they're historically bad, allowing an average of 474 yards per game. They can't stop anyone, though the Eagles might be the perfect opponent ... basically because they do a pretty good job of beating themselves.

Drew Brees looked positively ordinary in his last start, but that was in Denver. Now that he's home I expect the Saints pick up their game ... especially against the Eagles' matador defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was promoted to fix a unit that had a couple of fourth-quarter hiccups, but he flunked his first test, with the performance vs. Atlanta one of the worst in recent Eagles history. He and his unit must be better, much better, against Brees. Otherwise, you count on Vick to bail you out, and I don't care that he has won five of his past seven against the Saints; I care that he can't make this offense go.

The back story: Since 2010, no running back has produced more runs of 10 or more yards than LeSean McCoy. He has 108. Runner-up Arian Foster has 87.

Crummy game of the week

Detroit at Jacksonville, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Lions by 3½

The story: There is something inside me that keeps saying this could be an upset waiting to happen, and maybe it's Detroit's 1-3 record on the road, or maybe it's Calvin Johnson's failure to be the playmaker he was last season. But then I wake up and realize that Jacksonville doesn't have Maurice Jones-Drew at running back and does have Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, and it's then I remember what to say.

Next.

I'm not a believer in the Lions, thinking they don't get past .500 this season, but c'mon, the Jags are one of the worst teams out there. Maybe this one is close, or maybe even Jacksonville finds a way to steal it. All I know is if you're any good at all you beat the teams you're supposed to beat ... and Detroit is supposed to beat these guys.

The back story: Detroit has three wins, one in overtime and the other two in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter.

Upset of the week

Pittsburgh (+3½) over N.Y. Giants

The story: Everyone assumes the Steelers just got dealt a short hand by having to fly in on game day. Not me. I say coach Mike Tomlin uses the perceived setback to his advantage, selling it to his team that no one gives them a chance. I guess what I'm saying is that, in some oblique way, it hardens their resolve to pull the upset.

I know they're missing some key players, and I understand they're up against one of the NFL's best teams. But the Giants are vulnerable at home where, for some reason, they struggle. OK, they're 3-1 there, but they had to rally to overcome Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Washington, and these Steelers are better than any of those clubs. Plus, these Steelers can hurt Big Blue with wideouts that can fly and a quarterback who knows how to win.

It's that quarterback who gives them the chance for the upset. Roethlisberger has a history of making the big plays when they're needed most, just like the Giants' Manning, and they're needed here. Pittsburgh is better than people think, and the Steelers are beginning to gain momentum. I say this game launches them.

Five guys I'd like to be

1. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning: He's 7-0 in his career vs. the Bengals, with 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. In his past two games in Cincinnati he completed 74.3 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and one interception.

2. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco: He's 9-0 vs. Cleveland, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

3. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers: In two games against Arizona he has five touchdown passes and a passer rating of 115 or better in each game. When Rodgers hits that mark the Packers are 25-0.

4. Houston QB Matt Schaub: He's 10-1 in his past 11 starts at home, with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Fan Poll

What is Week 9's best game?

Steelers at Giants
54%
Broncos at Bengals
8%
Dolphins at Colts
9%
Cowboys at Falcons
21%
Eagles at Saints
8%

Total Votes: 35,578

5. Tampa Bay WR Vincent Jackson: He has a touchdown reception in four of his past five starts against the Raiders and is averaging 21.6 yards per catch this season, the most by any receiver with 20 or more grabs.

Five best matchups

1. Green Bay LB Clay Matthews vs. the Cardinals: He leads the NFC in sacks with nine, one more marking his third straight season with at least 10 sacks. Now the kicker: He faces Arizona, which has allowed 33 sacks the past five games and 39 all season. Connect the dots, people.

2. Buffalo DE Mario Williams vs. Houston: Williams was the first pick of the 2006 draft, by Houston. Six years later he left for the richest contract ever for a defensive player. Now Williams is back in Houston, only this time he's trying to save the Bills' season from collapse. Williams said this isn't about him -- that "it means more for us to get back on track" -- but who's kidding whom? Wait until you hear the reception he gets. Then you tell me what this could mean for him.

3. Philadelphia vs. itself: The Eagles have fallen so far that some players felt it was necessary to hold a meeting this week, a sure sign that they're in as much trouble as believed. When someone asked defensive end Jason Babin why a meeting was necessary, he was candid and accurate. "Our situation would be the only explanation for that one," he said. Bingo!

4. Baltimore Ravens vs. the road: The Ravens are a different team away from home, and the numbers, please. They average 32.1 points per game at home, 15 on the road -- and have produced just one touchdown in their past 10 away quarters. They're 1-2 on the road, and it's time something changes if Baltimore wants to defend its division title -- and that's not exactly news to anyone around the club. "It's time for us to go on the road and play well," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Period. End of story."

5. Washington QB Robert Griffin III vs. Carolina QB Cam Newton: RG3 doesn't like the comparison, and I don't blame him. "I'd rather be compared to an Aaron Rodgers or someone like that," he said, "someone who has won Super Bowls." I would, too.

Five things that may interest only me

1. Since 2000, 29 teams that reached the halfway point of the season with a record of .500 or below reached the playoffs, at least one each season. Of those 29, five advanced to conference championship games and two to Super Bowls.

2. Baltimore has won its past 10 starts vs. the AFC North.

3. If Peyton Manning throws for three touchdowns and 300 yards Sunday it will mark the fifth straight game he has done that, tying him with Hall of Famer Steve Young for the longest streak in NFL history.

4. It's the season of the NFC. The conference holds a 20-12 margin in games vs. the AFC, outscoring its opponents 868-677 while maintaining a plus-21 turnover margin. The NFC also has five of the league's top seven offenses and its top three running backs.

5. The Giants and Steelers have appeared in five of the past seven Super Bowls, winning four of them.

Numbers to remember

6: Touchdowns by interception for Chicago
7.3: C.J. Spiller's rushing average
24: Penalties vs. Atlanta, the fewest in the NFL
26-10: Dating to 2008, Atlanta's record in games decided by eight points or fewer
28-0: Atlanta's record when Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 100
38: Sebastian Janikowski field goals of 50 or more yards
39: Jared Allen sacks in his last 33 games
108.1: Reggie Wayne's average of yards receiving per game

Sunday's weather

 Cincinnati: Partly cloudy, high of 48
 Cleveland: Mostly cloudy, high of 42
 Green Bay, Wis.: Partly cloudy, high of 43
 Houston: Scattered thunderstorms, high of 80 (retractable roof)
 Indianapolis: Partly cloudy, high of 47 (retractable roof)
 Jacksonville, Fla.: Mostly sunny, high of 82
 Nashville, Tenn.: Partly cloudy, high of 75
 Landover, Md.: Partly cloudy, high of 52
 Oakland, Calif.: Sunny, high of 75
 Seattle: Showers, high of 61
 East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 50
 Atlanta: Dome

Where we will be

 I'll be at MetLife Stadium to order wakeup calls for the Steelers.
 Pete Prisco will be in Atlanta to catch Tony Romo's next interception.
 Mike Freeman will be in Seattle to take your orders at McRory's.

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