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Week 8 Game Rankings: High stakes in Dolphins-Patriots

It has finally happened. After two weeks of me making the case that there was at least one NFL game worthy of being dubbed a footlong, I cannot in good conscience do it this week. I would just be fooling myself, and fooling you guys.

It was bound to happen at some point, with six teams on the bye, including some of the more interesting clubs in the league. The reality is there might not be a single game played this weekend that features two playoff teams. If I had to pick one I would say Cowboys-Lions has the best potential for both teams reaching the postseason, but that's not exactly a game that would capture the nation's attention.

There just isn't much pop, particularly after last week's Manning-Luck I. So it is what it is. With the World Series underway these next two weeks, 12 teams in all hit the bye between Weeks 8 and 9, putting a lot of potentially good games on hold. Given the alarming rate of injuries, however, the time off should serve some teams well down the stretch.

None. See above

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots


Miami at New England
Sunday, Oct. 27, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: We get the return of Angry Tom Brady after his offense was miserable in defeat against the Jets. That's always fun. For once the Patriots have been incapable of making that October push that usually separates them from the pack in the AFC East. If the Dolphins are going to show their fast start wasn't a mirage and they plan to be a factor in this conference, now would be the ideal time. Rob Gronkowski should be better having finally endured his first game back from a long absence and gotten back in the routine of having his body pounded around on Sundays. Bottom line is whichever team does not come away with this victory will be facing some probing questions and the tone of their seasons might be taking on a different complexion from what many would have suggested back in September.

What to watch for: Can the Pats muster a pass rush? Now would be the time. Miami's offensive line was OK for three quarters against the Bills, but then started collapsing under pressure in the fourth quarter. We'll see if and when newly signed veteran Andre Carter can get in the mix in New England. ... Ryan Tannehill is still forcing some things, especially around the red zone. His airball into the end zone last week allowed the Bills to start padding a lead, and all of the pressure his line allows will take a mental and physical toll. ... The Dolphins seem committed to their ineffective running-back-by-committee approach, though you have to wonder if they alter that some here. Getting one guy going against a Pats defensive front that's beat up and lacking star power might make some sense, especially with Tannehill pressing some now. ... The Patriots secondary simply is not the same without Aqib Talib; Brian Hartline in particular could benefit from his absence. ... Wonder how early Bill Belichick starts working the officials after feeling like he was jobbed on the personal foul on the field-goal attempt by the Jets last Sunday. ... After being held in check by the Jets' defensive front and with the passing game struggling, would not be surprised to see the Pats go run-heavy early and try to make a statement. ... Can Bryant McKinnie make any impact on the Dolphins' offensive line? Will they incorporate more chips and help for their needy tackles? The scheme hasn't been heavy on help.

Dallas Cowboys at Detroit Lions


Dallas at Detroit
Sunday, Oct. 27, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: This is when the Cowboys get comfortable, right? They've won a few games and Jerry Jones is beaming and they've overcome an injury or two in the short term and they're 3-0 in the NFC East and starting to feel the love. So this is when they have that letdown game and prove once again that consistency and sustained winning really isn't their thing, right? Smells that way to me. The Lions will move the ball and put up points and if the Cowboys can't get balanced offensively they could be in trouble here. This game could have playoff tiebreaking potential and with the Packers showing signs of taking off, the Lions cannot afford to fall too far behind.

What to watch for: If there is more of a gunslinger in this league than Matt Stafford, please make the case. This dude is all about threading the ball into tight windows. He is totally fearless and whether improved, smarter or just plain lucky, fewer and fewer of those needle throws are getting picked off these days. The ball he put up into triple coverage for Calvin Johnson last week defies logic -- but works far more often that you would think. And against the Cover-2 the Cowboys play there will be plenty of windows for Stafford to take his shot in. ... A few weeks back we got the sense Kris Durham could be a growing factor for the Lions with Nate Burleson out, and each week he shows up. ... Along those lines, youngster Cole Beasley is becoming a favorite receiver of Tony Romo's. He has a knack for tap-dancing down the sidelines and he is moving the chains, especially when teams focus on Jason Witten over the middle. ... DeMarcus Ware will be pushing to play, but do the Cowboys take more of a long-term approach with the star pass rusher? ... Can't help but get the feeling Dez Bryant and Megatron play a little bit of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better on alternating possessions.

New York Jets at New York Jets


New York Jets at Cincinnati
Sunday, Oct. 27, 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Bengals have a chance to further distance themselves from the reigning AFC North and Super Bowl champs with the Ravens on the bye. The Jets have the chance to stay nipping at the heels of the Patriots, if not catch them entirely should New England slip up in Miami. Both of these teams play old-school defense. Marvin Lewis and Rex Ryan are both products of the Ravens coaching tree, both have young quarterbacks capable of making key mistakes but have also made their share of key throws with the game on the line. It won't be the prettiest game of the week but it is certainly one of the more intriguing battles, with one of the game's dominant 4-3 defensive lines up against what might be the best 3-4 defensive front. If you like the big uglies, this is the game for you.

What to watch for: Few teams are playing better coming from behind than the Bengals. They did it again last week in Detroit despite being totally dominated in every facet of the game except for the scoreboard. They stay balanced and rely on their defense and Andy Dalton doesn't seem to let those trailing situations bother him much. A slow start probably wouldn't doom them here, either, and you can tell their confidence builds as the game goes on. Saying all of that, Dalton continues to underthrow open receivers downfield and that's negating their big-play potential far too often. Connecting on a few more of those earlier in games would take some heat off the defense. ... Stephen Hill will benefit from Bengals top corner Leon Hall being out, and he continues to find ways to get behind a defense. ... Chris Ivory finally got the chance to carry the load last week and he proved up to the task. Hard, inside running will be at a premium against the Bengals. ... TE Tyler Eifert finally got in the end zone last week and his confidence should rise here. Jets LBs might not be able to run with him. ... Dalton has 5 TDs and 1 INT and a 101.3 rating in the second half of games.

Washington Redskins at Denver Broncos


Washington at Denver

Sunday, Oct. 27, 4:25 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: It's the Shanahan Bowl! Mike Shanahan returns to Denver for the first time since owner Pat Bowlen shocked much of the football world and let the former Super Bowl winner go following the 2008 season. Yes, it really was that long ago. We all recall Shanahan sitting out 2009, and now, deep into his fourth year in Washington he faces a Broncos team with little of his imprint still on it (especially with left tackle Ryan Clady out for the season). His Redskins go for their first winning streak of the season having outlasted the Bears (and former Shanahan protégé Jay Cutler) last week. Robert Griffin III is coming off his most explosive outing from an athletic standpoint, and the Broncos have looked a little more vulnerable each of the past few weeks and now try to avoid their first losing streak of the season. Vegas is seeing a blowout -- 18-point spread at one point this week -- but I suspect it could be much closer.

What to watch for: Peyton Manning seemed a little off to me after getting knocked around in the first half of Denver's loss at Indianapolis on Sunday night. He seemed to be pushing the ball more and not airing it out, and looked more like the Manning of early last season vs. the guy from this past September. Maybe it was nothing. ... The loss of Clady is starting to become more of a factor as the Broncos get thinner on the offensive line. I suspect Redskins coordinator Jim Haslett, who loves to blitz, will play some games moving Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan around to maximize matchups. ... I don't like this matchup for Denver's secondary, especially with Griffin more spry now and able to buy more time to extend plays. The Broncos are giving up chunk yards and I also wonder if the run defense remains as stout after such a torrid start in that regard. ... Von Miller was rusty in his first game back last week, but back at home with the crowd noise on his side, and with Griffin so often out in space, I suspect he makes a greater impact this weekend. ... Roy Helu continues to cut into Alfred Morris' workload beyond just third down. ... The Broncos will have a heck of a time covering Skins TE Jordan Reed. ... RG3 is more and more confident running the ball. Expect the Skins to rely on the read option plenty in the second half of the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders


Pittsburgh at Oakland
Sunday, Oct. 27, 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Steelers aren't dead. They're never dead. That dreadful September and the 0-4 start and their troubles at the bye week seem long gone after a close win over the rival Ravens. A win here and they're tied with Baltimore and, heck, maybe they get their ping pong and video games back in the locker room. Oakland comes out of the bye having lost three of four games and, in what has become a highly competitive AFC West, the pressure is mounting if this is not going to be another lost season. The Steelers' defense has started to apply better pressure and big-play potential the past few weeks. This is another big test for young Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pittsburgh's slow start, however, has robbed it of the ability to have too many stinkers from here on out.

What to watch for: Le'Veon Bell is the Steelers' best chance for a true surge up the standings. He gashed the Ravens for big yards running right up the gut -- not easy to do -- and is showing up plenty in the passing game, too. The offensive line clearly enjoys blocking for him and given the limitations of that group, the more they run the ball the better. ... TE Heath Miller makes a massive difference to the Steelers' offense. He provides stability, Ben Roethlisberger loves throwing to him and he creates space for Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown on the outside. ... Not sure anyone would have dared say this a few years ago, but give me Shaun Suisham over Sebastian Janikowski in the field-goal matchup. Suisham is perfect between 40-49 yards, and he gets asked do a lot with this offense still somewhat limited, while Janikowski has missed kicks that used to be automatic. ... Oakland has the NFL's least-productive passing offense in terms of yardage, and they aren't built to play from behind, especially against a Dick LeBeau defense. ... Penalties still continue to dog the Raiders at key times. ... Oakland has yet to get a point out of its two-minute offense. ... Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been shining on third down with creative calls and the team is over 50 percent on that down the past three games.

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs


Cleveland at Kansas City
Sunday, Oct. 27, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Chiefs are the NFL's lone unbeaten team as we approach the season's midpoint, and while we can debate the merits of the teams they have defeated, we cannot debate their record. They are basically putting themselves in the postseason by the midpoint (10-6 looks like it will be plenty good for a wild card) and with two games looming against the Broncos have a chance to open up their lead on Denver. One wonders how long the Chiefs will be able to continue winning this way, and, should they become as one-dimensional and conservative as they've been on offense, the Browns are more than equipped to shut down Jamaal Charles and force someone else to beat them. So, um, who exactly would? The Chiefs' ability to keep winning close games could be tested here, assuming the Browns don't hand the game away with turnovers.

What to watch for: Browns coach Rob Chudzinski's frustration with QB Brandon Weeden is mounting and there could be a quick hook here. He holds the ball too long, makes poor decisions and the offense has a sluggish pulse with Weeden in control. The organization does not have long-term plans for him and in this environment, against this pass rush, he could hit the self-destruct button early. ... Alex Smith has just seven passing touchdowns this season and no touchdowns and two interceptions in the past three games. ... Will the Browns even bother putting Joe Haden on Dwayne Bowe, since he's only really a decoy anyway, or just leave Haden 7 yards off the line of scrimmage to jump slants and crossing routes? ... Browns right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is going to need a lot of help on passing plays against this defense. The Chiefs are vulnerable against the run, and the Browns will be doing plenty of that on Sunday, I'm sure.

Buffalo Bills at New Orleans Saints


Buffalo at New Orleans
Sunday, Oct. 27, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Thad Lewis is a gamer. His spirit and enthusiasm are contagious. So far all he has done is come out of nowhere and nearly beat the Bengals -- losing in overtime -- and then knock off the Dolphins in Miami. He has been fearless in the pocket, he can move the ball with his feet and there is a natural excitement to his game. For all of the quarterback injuries and having to scramble to repeatedly get kids ready to play, the Bills have been competitive and look like they might refuse to go away entirely from at least the periphery of the playoff picture. The Saints, meantime, are refreshed after their bye and trying to shrug off their first loss of the season, in heartbreaking fashion, at New England in Week 6, and continue their quest for the first overall seed in the NFC.

What to watch for: Even if Jimmy Graham plays for the Saints, how limited is he and how does this offense balance itself out in the event it has to play a meaningful game without him? Everything seemed to bog down without Drew Brees firing completions his way against the Patriots, and that receiving group looks a lot more ordinary without his presence on the field. ... Bills RB Fred Jackson remains an unsung hero. He appeared to suffer a serious injury last week, bounced back and scored a touchdown on a physical run. He sets the tone for them and they'll be looking to establish him (even as he plays through knee issues) and C.J. Spiller early in this crazed atmosphere. ... Bills DT Kyle Williams is making more impact plays. Seems healthy finally. ... This is safety Jairus Byrd's last chance to make something happen before the trade deadline. The Bills' secondary will certainly get tested here.

Atlanta Falcons at Arizona Cardinals


Atlanta at Arizona
Sunday, Oct. 27, 4:25 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Falcons are trying to salvage the season after their Monday night loss to the Jets dropped them to 1-4. And they're trying to introduce America to a new group of offensive weapons with so many stars on the shelf. Receiver Harry Douglas has long been undervalued and he is showing up all over the field now with Roddy White and Julio Jones out, and not just in the slot. Huge young tight end Levine Toiolo makes for a unique target. The Cardinals are at the precipice of a point where maybe yet another season gets away from them.

What to watch for: John Abraham, for a long time, was the Falcons' pass rush. He was a one-man army who helped the team ascend but they went in another direction this year. He was a little too pricey and they brought in Osi Umenyiora instead. Abraham eventually landed in Arizona, and, at a time when the Falcons' offensive line has been looking shaky, I have a feeling he reintroduces himself to Matt Ryan more than a few times. Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will bring lots of pressure, and if the Falcons cannot run the ball -- Steven Jackson is trying to get back from an extended absence -- that could be a problem. The Cards forced some key turnovers from Russell Wilson last time out, and Ryan can't move like that cat. ... How many possessions before Carson Palmer throws his first pick? The lack of Atlanta pass rush and its inexperience at corner should help his cause. I could see this being a rare big stat game from Larry Fitzgerald because of it. ... Would like to see what RB Andre Ellington could do with a bigger workload from the Cards. He is averaging 6.4 yards per carry but getting only an average of four carries a game.

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings


Green Bay at Minnesota
Sunday, Oct. 27, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why to watch: I don't blame Greg Jennings one bit for taking the kind of money the Vikings threw at him at this stage of his career, but no one in Green Bay will forget some of the verbal shots he took at QB Aaron Rodgers on the way out. And, brother, are the Packers coming to town at the worst possible time. Minnesota has one win -- barely -- and is a blowout victim more times than not. The quarterback situation -- the three-headed monster of Ponder-Cassel-Freeman (would love to see that Halloween costume, by the way) -- is abysmal and Jennings is a decoy at best most games. Rodgers, meanwhile, finally has a running game and a more balanced offense and he has the Packers seeming to hit their stride. If another blowout loss -- and a 1-7 record at the trade deadline -- doesn't trigger some sort of a fire sale of older players in Minnesota, then I'm not sure anyone is really paying attention to what has been going on.

What to watch for: Jordy Nelson is in for a field day. The Vikings safeties don't seem like they can keep receivers in front of them even playing Cover-2. Only five teams have allowed more than their five passing TDs of 20 yards or more. And if James Jones returns for the Packers, all the more reason for concern for the Vikings. ... Josh Freeman has to look at least a little better than what we saw Monday night, right? Even with Freeman out this week, the Vikings have to hope that was rock bottom against the Giants. … Adrian Peterson is dealing with so much in his private life, and has been the target of so much miscast scorn, that I can't imagine it isn't in some way impacting him all around. I don't know how anyone could totally black out what he has been through the past few weeks. ... Rookie RB Eddie Lacy is fourth in the NFL with 125 yards rushing in the fourth quarter this season. Green Bay can squash teams with the lead now and protect Rodgers in the process. That equation should work again Sunday.

Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams


Seattle at St. Louis
Monday, Oct. 28, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why to watch: I will go with this old standby -- it's Monday night, what the hell else are you gonna do? And this can't possibly be as bad as the slopfest between the Giants and Vikings last Monday, can it? Yeah, sure, the Rams were bad even with Sam Bradford and now it's the Kellen Clemens show (have to wonder if Bernie Kosar tunes in for this, right?). But, hey, Percy Harvin might be making his Seahawks debut following a remarkable return from preseason hip surgery. Seattle is fresh having last played on a Thursday night, and the Rams defense has been surprisingly inconsistent after last year's rise. So if nothing else maybe we at least get one team playing crisp football to close out Week 8.

What to watch for: The Rams were about the best in the NFL at shutting down read-option stuff last season -- when it seemed to shock many defenses -- so I'm not sure we see much of it in this game. Not like the Seahawks should really need it. ... Seattle is starting to get its tight ends more involved. It will be important to keep that going as the offense evolves and could be a good move against this aggressive defense. ... Is this the week the Rams get Tavon Austin involved in the run game more with end arounds, reverses, wildcat, whatever? With no more Bradford, why not? ... The Rams have allowed 6.3 yards of YAC per reception, not good, and something the Seahawks will try to exploit here. St. Louis' zone defense has been spotty at best. ... The Rams still have elite edge rushers and the Seahawks remain short at tackle and this is a divisional game -- so I bet Pete Carroll gets all of his running backs involved and prizes the health of his young franchise quarterback.

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles


New York Giants at Philadelphia
Sunday, Oct. 27, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Eagles wait with baited breath as to whether Michael Vick's hamstring will hold up and be strong enough to get this offensive revived. With Nick Foles battling a concussion and struggling mightily a week ago and third-stringer Matt Barkley having as bad of a debut as possible, Vick is the most important man in Philly. The prospect of starting Barkley would have been crippling, and having him come off the bench, say if Vick's hamstring doesn't hold up, is even more daunting. How does Chip Kelly respond to the worst outing, by far, of his offense in his rookie campaign? What new tricks can he concoct? Interesting questions to ponder. The Giants manage a win and they will be on Philly's heels.

What to watch for: The Eagles' defense played by far its best game of the season on Sunday, with Cary Williams doing the job on Dez Bryant for the most part. He gets Hakeem Nicks this week in what could be Nicks' finale with the G-Men with the trade deadline looming. Should be an entertaining matchup. ... Fletcher Cox is becoming more of a force on defense after facing an adjustment to the 3-4 scheme with the Eagles. ... Eli Manning isn't close to done throwing picks. Monday night showed us that, again. There are pick sixes just waiting to come out. The threat of pressure up the middle has him chucking it up for grabs, with the woes of that offensive line impacting the scope of the passing game. ... Peyton Hillis improved rapidly as the game went on and even if Brandon Jacobs is back as the starting RB for the Giants, I expect Hillis to show up. He was a nice outlet for Manning in the screen game. ... The Giants' pass rush is MIA and, if they only rush four, they will have a hell of a time beating the five pass protectors of the Eagles. It takes numbers in the blitz to try to make the Eagles' pay for their minimal protection schemes.

San Francisco 49ers at Jacksonville Jaguars


San Francisco vs. Jacksonville (London)
Sunday, Oct. 27, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: It's a Jaguars home game that won't feature fans wearing bags on their heads or tarps on the upper deck. It's in London, their home away from home for the next few years. Things haven't worked out well stateside for the Jaguars, so perhaps the confines of Wembley Stadium will be more to their liking. Of course, the problem is the 49ers have played here before, they know the drill with travel and logistics and it won't be the hurdle -- mental or physical -- for them that it might be for some other clubs. They were already playing in Tennessee last week, so the flight from there isn't nearly as bad as it would have been from San Francisco. And, well, with a bye looming for the Jags and without the pressure of playing before their season-ticket holders, perhaps they find a way to keep this close as they did against Denver a few weeks back.

What to watch for: The 49ers are looking to make upgrades at wide receiver and boost the pass rush, if they can, before the trade deadline. If the reserves at those spots can't get it done against the worst team in the NFL, all the more reason to anticipate a move or two. ... There are few bright spots for the Jags, but free-agent defensive lineman Sen'Derrick Marks is probably playing his way into a bigger contract elsewhere. ... Frank Gore, who had a bit of a slow start, is getting better with more work and this could be a huge day for him. ... What not to look for: Nnamdi Asamogha on the field much at all for the 49ers. His grip on a depth corner spot was never very tight. ... Colin Kaepernick has been quite good during the 49ers' four-game winning streak, with a rating of 98, five TDs and only 1 INT. I get the sense they are still holding back on some read-option stuff as well. ... Is this Maurice Jones-Drew's last game in a Jags uniform? He had a season-low nine carries last week.

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