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Week 9 Game Rankings: Steelers in a must-win situation vs. Patriots

This is the last big bye week, and it has left us with what could be another week of blowouts. The Broncos, 49ers and Lions are sitting out this week -- and they have been among the most fun teams in the league to watch this season -- while the Cardinals remain competitive.

Yes, this bye spares us having to watch the Giants or Jaguars try to play football, but overall this is the second straight week with a less than appealing schedule.

They can't all be great, people. So, for a second straight week we are in a No-Footlong Zone. There isn't one in the group. Maybe we'll get something close to the Dallas-Detroit game that exceeded all expectations in Week 8, but once again there aren't any games this week you can highlight and say definitely feature a battle of two playoff-bound teams. It's simply not an argument you can make.

Perhaps it's best summed up by this matchup: Seattle, to many the best team in the NFL, hosting Tampa Bay, a club you can argue is the worst in the NFL. I had a hard time really even justifying designating these games Six-Inchers. It's all finger sandwiches and leftover crumbs. Enjoy!

Not. Even. Close.

Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots


Pittsburgh at New England
Sunday, Nov. 3, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: A week ago I said the Steelers are never dead. I may have misspoken. This is now a must-win game for them, without a doubt. In fact, it may be too late already, at 2-5. But 2-6? Forget about it. As for the Patriots, they looked like crap for a half against the Dolphins before rallying and now they may be on the verge of pulling well beyond the pack in the AFC East, again. This Steelers defense is the kind that usually can give Tom Brady trouble -- but then again, this Steelers defense isn't really a Steelers defense. Neither of these offenses are close to what we've seen in the past, but while the Pats keep finding ways to win games, their fellow longtime AFC heavyweight has been more like a punching bag this season.

What to watch for: Will we get more Brady histrionics? Winning ugly hasn't been his thing since early in his career, but that's how it goes for these Pats. I still believe his hand is less than 100 percent as well, with some balls sailing on him. Keep an eye on him. ... Rob Gronkowski was still clearly feeling his way through things again last week. But against these safeties he should be able to find some space. ... What happened to Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers' running game last week in Oakland? The compounding injury situation along their offensive line is undermining things, for one. ... Ben Roethlisberger simply cannot hold on to the ball this long given the limitations of this offense and his linemen in particular. ... New England is unbeaten at home this season and has been particularly good (fortuitous) in the second half of games there. ... I can't remember a time when the Steelers had a less impactful linebacker group -- Pittsburgh has created just 35 negative plays for opposing offenses this season, by far the worst in the NFL (the NFL average is 47). Even with so few proven receivers, give Brady time and he will hurt you.

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans


Indianapolis at Houston
Sunday, Nov. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why to watch: Well, the Texans had their window, didn't they? There was the year where Peyton Manning got hurt, when they won a division title, and, well, there was kind of the 2012 season as well, when Andrew Luck was a wee rookie and throwing a bunch of picks as he figured things out and the Colts needed a late surge to make it as a wild card. As for the present and the future, well, it certainly seems like Indianapolis is in great shape to resume its stranglehold on the AFC South, and a win here would further that argument. Indianapolis might be the best team in the AFC and the Texans are making a strong play as the conference's biggest disappointment. Sounds like two ships passing in the night.

What to watch for: Case Keenum had the Texans playing with more of a pulse at Kansas City and was getting the ball downfield. They had to open up the offense and the youngster is adept at the bootlegs and moving pockets that make Gary Kubiak's offense go. ... Few backs have been better than Arian Foster running the ball on third down this season, though his hamstring is a concern and the Texans signed two RBs this week with Ben Tate nursing cracked ribs. If they can't move the ball on the ground, they're cooked. ... TY Hilton is primed to help fill the void left by Reggie Wayne's season-ending injury. Luck will be targeting him early. ... TE Coby Fleener is gaining more trust as well, displaying better hands. Wayne's absence means more balls for him, too. ... I absolutely love Colts OLB Robert Mathis on a fast track in a dome, even if on the road. Coming off the bye week will have him revved up, too. ... I have a feeling being in the spoilers role may bring out the best in J.J. Watt down the stretch.

San Diego Chargers at Washington Redskins


San Diego at Washington
Sunday, Nov. 3, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: A year ago the Redskins were 3-6 at Week 9, with head coach Mike Shanahan talking about the need to evaluate players for the 2013 season. They went on to have a wild finish to the season and win the below-pedestrian NFC East. But does anyone really see that happening again? I don't. But if there is going to be a revival it needs to start ASAP for this 2-5 outfit, and they need to win games at home. The Chargers are fresh off a bye and their offense has been absolutely rolling, regardless of injuries or protection problems or whatever. They come up against a poor excuse for a defense here, reeling after getting shredded by the Broncos in the second half last week. And Shanahan's relationship with QB Robert Griffin III remains under a microscope after the young passer was knocked out of yet another game last week.

What to watch for: Just when you think RG3 is starting to look like his old self, he gets the piñata treatment by the Broncos and takes more shots to his knee and you have to wonder if this thing is built to last. ... Philip Rivers is having an MVP-type season and this is a secondary he should be able to pick apart. ... The Skins playbook seems to simply run out of running plays at critical times, like early in games against teams that can't stop the run or late in games when Washington has built a 14-point lead. Coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his dad just stop calling run plays. Never know when it will crop up in a game, but be on the look out for it. San Diego only has six tackles for negative yardage on run plays all season -- the league average is 25 -- but will Shanahan stick with an in-form Alfred Morris, or keep having RG3 chuck the ball all over the place? ... Slow starts are plaguing the Redskins' offense as well. Their scripts aren't working. ... The Redskins better win first down: The Chargers lead the NFL in 10-play drives, five-minute drives and percentage of first-down plays netting 4 yards or more and are second in average yards to go on second down. Redskins are third-worst in the NFL, allowing 54 percent of opposing first-down plays to go for 4 yards or more. Oh, and Washington is allowing an NFL-worst 65 percent of first-down passing plays to go for 4 yards or more.

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers


Atlanta at Carolina
Sunday, Nov. 3, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Do you get the feeling the rest of the NFC South is enjoying the travails of the Falcons just a little? The Falcons are getting smacked around on both sides of the line of scrimmage , they were beaten up by Arizona last week and return East to face a team with just as physical of a front seven in the Panthers. Good luck. Could be another physical mismatch and Matt Ryan has not been handling the pressure well, throwing four picks last week with the chance for a few more. Carolina is rested, having last played on a Thursday, and Cam Newton is having a wonderful month. The Panthers have a chance to surge into the playoff picture.

What to watch for: Ryan, running for his life. It looks inevitable here, with his sagging offensive line short on tackles. ... No signs of the Falcons discovering a running game anytime soon (dead last at 62 yards per game), though they badly need something out of Steven Jackson soon to try to keep some of the heat off their quarterback. ... Atlanta lacks the athletes on the edge to contain Newton out in space, and the pitches to De'Angelo Williams should be plenty effective, too. The Panthers are averaging 5.19 yards per carry when they run to the left side, and they'll be coming right at Osi Umenyiora, I'm sure. ... Panthers S Mike Mitchell is one of just eight players in the NFL with more than one interception return of 20 yards or more this season. He'll get chances to make plays on the ball Sunday. ... Not sure how the Falcons account for go-everywhere LB Luke Kuechly. I just don't see it. ... Mike Tolbert has every chance to succeed in short-yardage situations for the Panthers against this defense.

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns


Baltimore at Cleveland
Sunday, Nov. 3, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Did the Super Bowl champs rediscover any part of their offense during the bye? Might they now be able to run and/or throw the football with some regularity after being unable to do either in the first half of the season? At 3-4, and with the Bengals threatening to run away with the AFC North, this is a must-win game and the Browns' defense won't make it easy on them. If the Ravens cannot improve the play from their offensive line, this could end up being a lost season. The Browns smothered the Ravens for the first half of their game in Baltimore early this season, and its usually close when these teams get together.

What to watch for: Ravens LT Eugene Monroe should be fully invested in the offense by now, or at least close enough, with a month since his acquisition. He needs to step it up. ... Ravens C Geno Gradkowski remains a huge potential issue for the Ravens. The youngster is getting pushed around and Browns T Phil Taylor is a powerful dude. ... Baltimore has been awful in the first half of games on offense. The Ravens need to come up with a better script or adjust sooner to try to create a spark. ... Browns CB Joe Haden is usually bad news for Ravens WR Torey Smith. ... The Ravens will have difficultly sticking with Browns TE Jordan Cameron out in space. ... The Browns' offense has more life and verve with anyone other than Brandon Weeden under center and they're sticking with Jason Campbell. Campbell throws a big deep ball and Baltimore's safeties have been caught more than enough this season.

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers


Chicago at Green Bay
Monday, Nov. 4, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why to watch: Green Bay may not lose a game for a while and the Bears might not win one. Looks like the Packers are catching a sagging Chicago defense at the best possible time. During a stretch here where the prime-time games are pretty crappy, take solace in the fact at least we get to watch Aaron Rodgers operate on Monday. It has to be an upgrade over the Eli/Freeman debacle, or the first start for Kellen Clemens in an eternity last week. The ball almost never hit the ground as Rodgers sliced up the Vikings last Sunday night and this looks like the perfect forum for a command performance.

What to watch for: Bears backup QB Josh McCown was excellent in relief duty in Week 7 and got the bye week to get more reps and continue to work in Marc Trestman's offense. That should only help, and the pass game has a chance to keep making plays here. Green Bay is allowing opposing passers to compile a 96 rating at their expense. ... The Bears' defense is even more vulnerable now without LB Lance Briggs. Age and poor drafts have caught up with them, big time. ... Julius Peppers has one sack in seven games and does not have a single tackle in three contests this season. See how often he shows up against this offensive line that is road grading people in the run game. If he does, it will probably be for all the wrong reasons. ... The Bears are allowing an astonishing 75 percent conversions against on third-and-short and the Packers have been the best rushing team in the NFL this month. ... The Bears are 30th in the NFL, allowing 34 passes of 20 yards or more; Rodgers is tied for fifth with 29 such passes already. ... The Bears have allowed 26 rushes of 10 yards or more, 27th in the NFL; Green Bay has produced 26 such runs already -- seventh in the league. ... Eddie Lacy is able to win on every down for the Packers, and is showing up on third down too.

Philadelphia Eagles at Oakland Raiders


Philadelphia at Oakland
Sunday, Nov. 3, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: How will Chip Kelly respond to the offensive crisis his team is experiencing? Who would have thought that by midseason the Eagles defense would look by far the better of the two units? Who actually believes Matt Barkley -- if Nick Foles can't play -- would actually enjoy a visit back to his native California if it includes this stop at The Black Hole? Knock the Raiders if you like, but they are 3-1 at home this season. The only loss was a game they led vs. Washington much of the way with Matt Flynn -- who they quickly released -- at quarterback with Terrelle Pryor sidelined by a concussion. And the Eagles haven't scored an offensive touchdown in the past two games. Still, in the NFC East, a good weekend and they're right there.

What to watch for: The Raiders go three-and-out 29 percent of the time, 28th in the NFL, and doing so with Kelly's offense on the other sideline could be an issue. The Eagles won't be this bad for too long on that side of the ball, and Oakland has to keep the clock moving some. ... Philly's red-zone woes persist. Just nine TDs in 22 trips there -- only the Jags have a lower TD conversion percentage -- and three red-zone turnovers tied for second most in the NFL. ... The Eagles' running game is bogged down. Averaging a dismal 3.14 per carry the past two weeks, with no rushing TDs, after leading the NFL in rushing and netting seven rushing TDs the first six games. With no Michael Vick at QB that could remain an issue. The read option is not nearly as impactful without him. In their first four games, with teams unsure of what to expect, Philly averaged a whopping 6.1 per carry; the past four games, 3.67 per carry, well below the league average. That run game is what allowed them to run so many plays and chew up clock and sustain a tepid, 15th-ranked pass game in yards and 15th in terms of TD passes. Oakland is fourth best in the NFL allowing just 3.55 per carry, and is very physical up front. ... Teams try to contain Pryor from rolling right, but if he hits the second level against this defense it could be trouble.

New Orleans Saints at New York Jets


New Orleans at N.Y. Jets
Sunday, Nov. 3, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Who doesn't love it when Rex Ryan and Rob Ryan are on the same field? It's every camera guy's dream, and, with Halloween this week, how many people do you think might be dressed as The Brothers Ryan in the stands? Geno Smith has to try to rebound against what has become a menacing defense, and after two pick-sixes last week, will the home crowd take it easy on him? Will Drew Brees watch the film of Andy Dalton carving up the Jets last week and duplicate it? It's time for Rex to rally the troops, for sure, and few have been better at that. New York doesn't want to fall below .500, while the Saints want to keep cruising to what they hope will be the top seed in the NFC.

What to watch for: Not a bad return for Jimmy Graham last week, was it? Got back into the end zone. But how much will that foot bother him moving forward the more he plays on it? ... Would think the Jets might want to feature Chris Ivory here. He's always running angry and this time out he gets to face his former team, where he was unleashed on the opposition pretty rarely. New Orleans is allowing an NFL-worst 4.83 yards per carry and Rex knows his young QB needs as much Ground and Pound as ever coming off last week's disaster. ... The Saints are struggling, allowing 67 percent conversions by the opposition on third-and-short -- another indication that the Jets should stick with power run game. ... Oh, and 46 percent of opponent rushes go for four yards or more against the Saints, 29th in the NFL in that department. Are you detecting a theme here, especially considering the kind of confusing blitzes Rob Ryan will throw at Smith? ... The Jets and Saints rank 1-2 in first-down sacks, and if New York can get to Brees on that down, forcing the Saints out of schedule, could make for a more interesting game.

Tennessee Titans at St. Louis Rams


Tennessee at St. Louis
Sunday, Nov. 3, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: There will be some real, visceral emotion involved here. Rams coach Jeff Fisher spent the bulk of his career in the Titans/Oilers organization, much of it with Gregg Williams as his top assistant. Fisher fired Williams' son after the 2012 season and did not retain Williams (Williams was suspended for the 2012 season for his role in the Saints' "bounty" case, and then later reinstated). Now Williams is back in Tennessee leading a resurgence of the Titans' defense, and there are many, many ties and relationships between these two staffs, many of them having worked together before. This looks like a pretty ho-hum game on paper, but to the men involved I suspect it's a little more personal. Fisher faces his old franchise only two weeks after longtime owner Bud Adams passed away.

What to watch for: Can Kellen Clemens do anything of note at QB for the Rams with Sam Bradford on IR? Did the Rams use the bye week to figure out how to fix some of their glaring issues in pass coverage and also maybe find a way to actually get first-round pick Tavon Austin involved in the offense? ... Titans QB Jake Locker did not look right in Week 7, his first game back from a serious hip injury, but should be more mobile for this one. When he protects the ball, this team wins. ... The Titans made a change at center and have tweaked their run game some in hopes of getting Chris Johnson going in the second half of the season. I love his chances of doing just that here. The Rams are allowing 127 yards per game and are tied for fourth worst in the NFL with 26 runs yielded of 10 yards or more.

Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills


Kansas City at Buffalo
Sunday, Nov. 3, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Chiefs' march to perfection, which nearly ended with two straight close wins at home, now goes on the road to Buffalo, where the Bills are tough. Their QBs have six TD passes at home and an 88.5 rating, with just three TDs and a 66 rating on the road. As a team they have six rushing TDs at home, and two on the road. They are 2-2 at home with wins over Super Bowl champ Baltimore and a tough overtime loss to the surging Bengals, as well as a tough two-point loss to the Pats. So this game could be another back-and-forth contest for the Chiefs, the last undefeated team in the NFL, and with the bye looming and then two games against Denver in a three-week span, could this be the proverbial trap game for Kansas City?

What to watch for: Plenty of people are jumping up and down about the Chiefs' great defense, rightfully so. But Kansas City is fifth worst in the NFL allowing 4.7 yards per carry. The Chiefs are also giving up 4.7 per carry on first down, when it's fairly obvious some of their opponents will be doing just that. Buffalo is averaging 134 rushing yards a game and hopes to have C.J. Spiller back Sunday to complement Fred Jackson. ... Bills QB Thad Lewis continues to absorb some massive hits and keep coming back for more. But Buffalo's tackles are going to need a lot of help from backs and tight ends to keep these Chiefs edge rushers off of him. ... In this era of multiple tight-end formations, the Chiefs don't have a TE with even 20 catches or 250 yards or more than one TD at the midpoint of the season. Given Alex Smith's limitations, resolving that down the stretch would be significant.

Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys


Minnesota at Dallas
Sunday, Nov. 3, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Color me among those who don't think Dez Bryant losing his cool on the sidelines is a harbinger of impending doom for the Cowboys. I mean, the Cowboys will remain chronically inconsistent because, well, they're the Cowboys, but that's not because Dez blows a gasket every now and again. Stuff happens. This guy is a game-changer and we've seen Tom Brady and Peyton Manning lose it at times, too. Bryant bounces back this week with a monster game against a horrible Vikings defense in Week 9, it says here, which will probably be the most appealing thing to see in an otherwise brutal game.

What to watch for: Is this the week Adrian Peterson breaks free and puts this team on his back? Because he's going to have to for Minnesota to have any chance of slowing down the Cowboys. Peterson touched the ball an average of 24.25 times a game in 2012; that's down to 21 times a game this season. In the three losses since the Vikings' bye, Peterson has averaged just 14.67 touches a game. He remains the Vikings' best weapon, and especially with such poor quarterbacking, sticking with the run is imperative. ... Speaking of which, this is the likely return of Josh Freeman at QB for the Vikings. It couldn't possibly be worse than his last outing, right? ... The Vikings rank 30th in the NFL, allowing 57 percent of opponents drives inside the 30 to result in a touchdown. ... The Vikings are allowing 28 yards per kickoff return, second worst in the entire league. Given all of their defensive failings, conceding field position to an offense that don't need any help in the first place -- like this Dallas outfit -- will continue leading to blowout losses. They're also sixth-worst in the NFL allowing 12 yards per punt return. Oh, Dallas leads the NFL in kickoff return average and is second in punt return average. Would seem like the perfect afternoon to have the Cowboys Defense/Special Teams on your fantasy team.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Seattle Seahawks


Tampa Bay at Seattle
Sunday, Nov. 3, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Do you think Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano could get fired at the half? I mean this has all the potential to be beyond ugly. A grumpy team that wants its coach out, searching for its first win, going all the way to Seattle to face the toughest road environment against the Seahawks. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon in that environment? It'll be a looonngg flight back to Tampa Bay and if this gets as lopsided as it looks like it could, you have to wonder if the Schiano experiment comes to a crashing halt here and now.

What to watch for: If ever there was a chance for a shutout, this is it. The Bucs average 14 points a game, and a lot of that tends to come in garbage time. Against this defense? And this secondary in particular? And without Doug Martin at RB? Godspeed, Bucs. Godspeed. ... Glennon has a paltry QB rating of 61 against the blitz -- 40th in the NFL -- pretty darn close to Josh Freeman's rating of 57. Just sayin'. ... Good time for the Seahawks to expand the passing offense -- Tampa Bay ranks last in pass rating against passes traveling 21 yards or more. So much for the improved secondary. The Bucs are also last in yards after the catch allowed.

 
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