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Week 10 Game Rankings: Panthers at Niners could become key tiebreaker

We have some footlongs back. Three of them, even.

That's a good start. Did I stretch it a little for them? Maybe. But after having 12 teams on the bye between Weeks 8 and 9 and no real divisional powerhouse games to speak of, we are getting back into the swing of things this weekend with some clashes that could alter the postseason equation for the better (not just teams blowing games and looking more like pretenders than contenders).

The Bears can't afford a second loss to the Lions, in all likelihood, and both of those teams must be looking at the Aaron Rodgers injury as a possible opportunity to make a run. If the Chargers are going to keep the Chiefs from sprinting away in the AFC West, then they need to make a stand Sunday, with the Chiefs on a bye and approaching a stretch where they face Denver twice in three weeks.

Overall, the AFC schedule is a little light with three potential playoff teams on the bye -- the Patriots, Chiefs and Jets -- as well as the Browns, who, aside from the games Brandon Weeden has had to start, have displayed an ability to play with pretty much any opponent.

Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers


Carolina at San Francisco
Sunday, Nov. 10, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: It might be hard for these teams to win their respective divisions, but this if nothing else could be a massive playoff tiebreaker. The win here may be the difference between the fifth seed or the sixth seed; it may be the difference between reaching the postseason and watching on TV. These two teams have the ability to run it down people's throats with several different options and also the ability to shut down the opposing team from running the ball at all. They are two of the hottest teams in the NFL -- Carolina has won four straight while the 49ers have won five in a row and come in off a bye. They are led by huge, dynamic quarterbacks who play the position like few have ever been capable of doing. Um, so, yeah, outside of that, nothing to see here whatsoever.

What to watch for: Any tweaks for the 49ers coming out of the bye? They have been pretty judicious about how they implement read-option looks this season and the Panthers defense knows plenty about it from facing Cam Newton in practice, but it just might take some trickery to move the ball on this Carolina defense. ... Ex-49ers WR Ted Ginn is having a renaissance season for the Panthers and will have no shortage of motivation to make plays here, on special teams and perhaps in the screen game as well. ... The return of Jonathan Stewart to the Panthers' backfield last week provided an added dimension, with him rushing nine times for 43 yards in his season debut, breaking one for 16 yards. With him joining Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, the opportunities for creativity in the run game abound. ... Don't hear too many people questioning Newton's leadership these days, do you? Or Colin Kaepernick's tattoos? For good reason. ... The Panthers have turned the ball over 11 times and allowed a league-best seven points in drives after giving it up. ... Newton is the best third-down passer in the NFL, with a 120 rating.

Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears


Detroit at Chicago
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Lions look like they might be for real, and they come into this game fresh off a bye against a division rival that has been struck by injuries. If they can get the win here, Detroit gets better positioned for a wild-card spot and overtaking the Packers in the NFC North. It might just come down to the Panthers and Lions for that final playoff position. Can Chicago continue to stay afloat while Jay Cutler attempts to come back from injury? While Cutler has been cleared to play, Josh McCown has played ridiculously well in his six quarters of work -- almost flawless -- and is spreading the ball around and executing this offense expertly. No need to rush Cutler back I figure, even for a game that would put the winner in first place in the division.

What to watch for: I love the prospect of a well-rested Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson against a defense that is getting eviscerated these days. Few teams are more fun to watch throw the ball around -- especially when trying to pull off a wild comeback -- than Detroit. Will it be as crisp outside the dome? ... Do the Bears use a corner and two safeties to try to defend Johnson? Will three defensive backs be enough? The Lions do have a way of fumbling and having balls pop loose after the catch, however, and no one is better at dislodging the ball in space than Bears CB Charles Tillman. ... I like Reggie Bush in this spot, a ton. ... Few teams in the NFL are as balanced with their run approach than the Lions, who have rushed left 72 times, right 76 times and up the middle 60 times. ... The Lions are fifth in the NFL with 33 passes of 20 yards or more; Bears have allowed 34 -- third most in the NFL -- including seven touchdowns of that length, tied for third-worst in the league. ... Is this the game where Julius Peppers shows up? ... Very interested to see how the Bears' offensive line holds up in the second half of the season. ... Bears RB Matt Forte is on pace for a career high in receptions -- that won't change with a backup quarterback under center and a Lions team that can generate a pass rush with three or four players.

Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers


Denver at San Diego
Sunday, Nov. 10, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: If the Chargers stick to their identity, they might have an upset up their sleeve here. They have gone win-loss, win-loss all season -- with a brief two-game winning streak accomplished primarily because they were facing lowly Jacksonville. Coming off yet another difficult defeat last week in Washington, this would seem to be a case where they rise to meet a tough opponent. Denver comes in off the bye, with Peyton Manning's health and the hits he's taking an increasing concern. The Broncos play their first game since head coach John Fox's heart surgery last week, and will that impact them in a tangible manner at all with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio taking over as interim head coach? It won't change play calling much, but does the defense slip more with Del Rio spread a little thin now?

What to watch for: How is Manning moving around? Is he firing through his throws? His ankles have taking a fair share of abuse and I wonder if the Broncos become a little more run-centric as the weather turns and they get deeper into their schedule. ... Big game for Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen last week, and he will have to keep that going here. ... Broncos pass rusher Von Miller, with a few weeks under him and a bye to catch up, should be positioned to get it cranked up, starting here, against a team with rotating tackles and a patchwork offensive line. ... If this is close late, you have to like Manning's chances. The Chargers have struggled to manage late-game situations, including a poor goal-line sequence at the end of regulation Sunday. They faltered late against Houston in Week 1 and blew a game late to the Titans in Week 3 as well.

Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints


Dallas at New Orleans
Sunday, Nov. 10, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why to watch: You kind of get the impression that for Jerry Jones, Sean Payton will always be the one that got away -- the best coach developed on his staff back in the day, but destined never to actually coach the Cowboys. Well, maybe not never, but certainly no time soon. The men share a great affinity but only one of them has a penchant for winning big games this decade. The Saints offense should get plenty healthy against this sad sack Dallas defense. Dallas barely escaped a debacle at home to the Vikings -- the Vikings! -- last week, and looks like a wounded team just trying to hold on, hoping DeMarcus Ware can give them a boost should he return. This has all the makings of what could be an offensive shootout in the vein of the Cowboys-Lions tilt from a few weeks back.

What to watch for: What secrets did Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan take with him from his time in Dallas, and can his unit manage to stop the run this week? The Saints got absolutely steamrolled by the Jets offensive line last week, but the Cowboys have been getting pushed around all year. ... Darren Sproles got concussed last week and the scope of the Saints offense changes fairly dramatically without him on the field. ... The Saints' kicking situation is worth monitoring down the stretch. Garrett Hartley has been erratic and if this defense isn't producing turnovers like before they could find themselves in plenty of close games. ... The Saints have allowed five rushing TDs in the past three games. ... The Cowboys have held the time of possession advantage just once in the past six games.

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens


Cincinnati at Baltimore
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Bengals can take a stranglehold on the AFC North here, and possibly send the Ravens to a fourth straight defeat -- something unheard of in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era. Could the Ravens lose a second straight home game? Harbaugh, who had never lost coming off the bye and had never lost to the Browns, did both last week -- putting the Ravens' season in jeopardy. Can Andy Dalton shake off his three-pick dud of a game in prime time against the Dolphins in Week 9? How does the Bengals defense respond to the loss of Geno Atkins for the season? These two teams certainly seem to be headed in different directions, and a Bengals win on the road here would certainly punctuate that fast.

What to watch for: Chances are the Ravens will have about 15 rushing yards and three points at the half. Their first-half offense is atrocious and only in the second half have they been able to get the ball downfield. ... The Atkins loss is massive. Will teams try to run the ball inside more now? Can the Bengals manage a push up the middle without him? Against this offensive line, backups should suffice. ... Count the number of times Ray Rice is hit in the backfield. Seems like it's every other carry these days. ... Gio Bernard is the kind of back who could give Baltimore fits in the screen game. ... The Ravens' third-down defense is suspect and few teams commit as many penalties on money downs as well. ... Baltimore is just 1-3 in games decided by three points or less. ... The Ravens have a minus-29 scoring differential in the first half; the Bengals are plus-24.

Houston Texans at Arizona Cardinals


Houston at Arizona
Sunday, Nov. 10, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: If you don't get fired up watching Case Keenum sling the ball all over the place and jump up and down and get caught up in the moment and exude enthusiasm then we aren't watching the same game. He has just enough Johnny Football in him to give his team life and not enough Johnny Football in him to derail their chances or put them in a hole. He's not afraid to tuck the ball and pick up essential yards on the ground. Keenum faces another stern test in this Cardinals defense. The Texans are trying to salvage something of their season and get coach Gary Kubiak back. The Cardinals are showing well, especially Todd Bowles' defense. They are on the periphery of the playoff scene as well. But, hell, if nothing else, Keenum is eminently watchable.

What to watch for: Andre Johnson had his first monster game in quite some time last week, but I figure he sees a heavy dose of Patrick Peterson in this game. Can the Texans star receiver keep it going? ... Looking like a bit of a lost season for Arian Foster and the Texans run game. It can't carry the team this year and the defense still is not turning people over. ... Love RB Andre Ellington and the burst he continues to give that Cards offense. ... Have a feeling J.J. Watt gets loose this week given the state of the Cardinals' tackles. ... The Texans seem to be phasing out veteran safety Ed Reed a little more each week. He is figuring in fewer of their base packages. Does he have one more stunning interception and return in him?

Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers


Philadelphia at Green Bay
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: It's hard to imagine, but if Chip Kelly's offense can come up with another seven TDs out of Nick Foles this weekend then by golly, I like his chances. The question is whether or not the Eagles can keep up last week's pace in their romp over the Raiders, with the offense prone to big highs and low lows. And can they slow down the Packers, or keep pace? It's worth noting Oakland actually outgained the Eagles, somehow, in their 49-20 defeat, with the Raiders producing 560 yards to 542 from Philadelphia. Go figure. And the Packers, with Seneca Wallace at the helm, are a totally different team on offense. Oh yeah, the Packers have to try to win without Aaron Rodgers for a little while, which has completely altered the scope of the NFC North race.

What to watch for: Can Foles eliminate his weekly ebbs and flows to show enough to secure this job long-term? Will Kelly commit to him even if he does, considering his lukewarm endorsement following a seven-touchdown effort? ... The Eagles' run defense had been fairly stout before last week, when the Raiders tore them up for 210 yards on the ground, and that's with Darren McFadden being a nonfactor due to injury. ... The Packers' entire identity changes without Rodgers -- get ready for plenty of Eddie Lacy and James Starks up the gut. ... The Eagles may be able to exploit some things on the edge with Clay Mathews (maybe) and Nick Perry out, especially if LeSean McCoy can turn it outside. ... Can Riley Cooper have a big game two weeks in a row? ... If teams continue to focus on stopping Green Bay's ground game, will Wallace be able to make anything happen on third down? Last week's loss was ugly from a passing perspective.

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons


Seattle at Atlanta
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Seahawks are taking their lumps lately for not winning games decisively enough and not blowing teams out, but these wins all look the same in the end. This is a tough travel spot for them and they are living dangerously. The Falcons are going to win another game, right? At some point? This looks to me like a physical mismatch for the Falcons, who have been overpowered two straight weeks by dominant defenses and been absolutely stifled at the line of scrimmage. Saying all of that, the Seahawks have allowed the Rams and Bucs to run the ball up and down the field the past two weeks, and I don't think many of us saw that coming. Maybe there are more surprises in store here, too, with Steven Jackson finally coming alive. If anything, recent results by Seattle would suggest this turns out to be a close game, while recent results by the Falcons would, well, suggest otherwise. You might remember the Seahawks' season ended in Atlanta in the playoffs last year, a timeout away from reaching the NFC Championship Game.

What to watch for: Frustration mounts for Matt Ryan, with the quarterback in a deep funk, his protection sagging and suddenly without robust offensive weapons for the first time in his career. He has thrown seven interceptions in the past two games, is getting knocked around a ton, and the Seahawks have plenty of edge rushers and ballhawks in the secondary. ... Not sure the Falcons have the horses to withstand a heavy dose of the power run game if the Seahawks adopt that mentality. ... With Sidney Rice on IR, Jermaine Kearse could be a beneficiary, though I like Doug Baldwin working the slot against the Falcons' young corners as a better matchup for Russell Wilson. ... Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch comes in off his best game of the season, topping 100 yards for just the second time and still getting 21 carries in a game in which his team trailed by 21 points and came back to win. So I expect them to follow a run-first outlook here as well.

St. Louis Rams at Indianapolis Colts


St. Louis at Indianapolis
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Andrew Luck is the king of the fourth-quarter comeback, the Colts may be the best team in the AFC and this looks like a game they should win easily. Perhaps they suffer a bit coming down after their spirited victory at Houston on Sunday night. The Rams' pass rush will be a factor here, but if the Colts continue to win the games they will run away with the AFC South. The longer Kellen Clemens has to fill in for Sam Bradford at quarterback for St. Louis, the worse things seem to be getting. Maybe they develop some balance on Sunday, though I doubt it.

What to watch for: Plenty of T.Y. Hilton streaking down the sidelines. With Reggie Wayne out it's clear Hilton has become a new focal point for the Colts' offense. He has surer hands than his counterparts and stands to have a huge game here. ... Rams CB Cortland Finnegan had his best game in years Sunday, getting his hands on a Jake Locker pass and jumping some routes underneath. ... I don't like the Colts tackles to be all that successful against the tandem of Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Expect to see plenty of Donald Brown and Trent Richardson in the run game for the Colts. Indy is pretty protective of Luck, for good reason. ... Zac Stacey has taken over the St. Louis run game and turned it from a weakness into a strength. I suspect they may take their chances running at Robert Mathis quite a bit. ... Pretty sure there was a Jared Cook sighting by the Rams last week.

Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers


Buffalo at Pittsburgh
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Bills are overdue for a win, with bad luck and untimely injuries crippling them. The return of EJ Manuel at quarterback, however, should give them a lift. Maybe they can develop and evaluate their first-round pick for the remainder of the season after injuries eliminated much of his preseason and regular season. His mobility will give the Steelers defense fits, and you have to wonder about the mental makeup of Pittsburgh after giving up a record 55 points last week in another crushing defeat. This game could end up having an impact on draft selection in the spring and I have a feeling the Steelers end up picking before the Bills.

What to watch for: Mario Williams on Ben Roethlisberger's back. It's bound to happen a few times, if not more. Pittsburgh can't keep a stable line together, Big Ben is holding the ball far too long and it's all imploding for the Steelers. Expect the Bills to bring some pressure and possibly get their corners involved some, too. ... Not sure when C.J. Spiller will be able to get through a game without repeated trips to the sideline. His ankle and other things seem to be ailing him and the consistent explosion is not there. ... I like Bills speedster Marquise Goodwin to make things happen against a secondary that lacks for speed and acceleration. ... How does Steelers WR Antonio Brown, who has been visibly frustrated at times and was benched in last week's loss, respond to his latest setback? ... Can't believe how little I see LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons flash on a consistent basis. ... Steelers CB Ike Taylor is suffering too, but the lack of pass rush and the lack of speed of the safeties are doing him no favors.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans


Jacksonville at Tennessee
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Titans are hanging around the AFC wild-card scene. As long as they take care of the ball, I like their chances to make the second half of the season interesting. Also, the Jags have yet to win a game or really come all that close, so that's kind of interesting in its own right, right? Tennessee found a two-headed run game last week and that should bode well against this defense, and maybe even open things up a little bit for Jake Locker.

What to watch for: Chris Johnson has gotten hot late in the past and is coming off his best game in quite some time. ... The Jags' passing offense is likely headed for new lows now that Justin Blackmon is suspended, again, this time for the duration of the season. ... Could the Jags have unearthed a few wrinkles during the bye to spice things up and try to be more competitive down the stretch? ... The Jags are on pace for a minus-356 scoring differential, which would shatter the record of the 1976 Bucs (minus-287). Now, those 0-14 Bucs played only 14 games, but adjusting for a 16-game season, it would have been minus-328. The 0-16 Lions of 2008, for instance, were a minus-249. The Jags are on pace to pass them by the end of the month. So, if you're a history buff ...

Oakland Raiders at New York Giants


Oakland at N.Y. Giants
Sunday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: If the Giants are going to stay somewhere within range of the playoff scene in the NFC, this is a must-win coming out of the bye. Ditto for the Raiders if they are going to hang around the AFC playoff scene. Seems like a bad time for the Raiders to be traveling across the country, after getting crushed by the Eagles at home. Add in the fact that QB Terrelle Pryor, a difference maker in the run game, is nursing a knee injury now, and things look even more bleak for the Raiders. Then again this is just when the Raiders step up and surprise you. They're a hard team to get a handle on but seem just scrappy enough to go 3,000 miles and end someone's season.

What to watch for: How much are the Giants going by committee in the run game and is Peyton Hillis still a factor on third downs and via screens? ... Has Eli Manning finally exorcised his rampant turnover demons that went a long way to contributing to the Giants' 0-6 start? ... Hakeem Nicks seemed to be coming alive before New York went on the bye. With the trade deadline passed, maybe he exhales some. ... The Giants absolutely must establish a pass rush of some sort soon if they want to get back in the race even in the suspect NFC East. ... Rashad Jennings is looking good in spot duty and I expect he is a problem for the Giants on Sunday. ... A loss would be crushing for the Giants as this is a common opponent that has already lost to the Skins and Eagles.

Miami Dolphins at Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Miami at Tampa Bay
Monday, Nov. 11, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why to watch: This is the Monday night game. No seriously, it is. Stop laughing. For reals. This is it. We get the two most dysfunctional teams in the NFL, in prime time, one dealing with a reviled head coach and a MRSA scandal and a near mutiny on their hands. The other is dealing with an unprecedented harassment issue that has cost them two-fifths of their offensive line and has cast the overall leadership and management of the franchise into question. Also, Greg Schiano is coaching possibly his final NFL game with the greatest coach in Bucs history -- Jon Gruden -- in the booth broadcasting this debacle and no shortage of empty seats in the stands.

What to watch for: The Bucs found a run game with Mike James going over 150 yards last week in Doug Martin's absence. Another such performance would go a long way toward keeping Schiano employed. Beware of James on the halfback option as well in the red zone. ... Expect Gerald McCoy to be a major disruptive factor and put Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill under duress from the A gap. ... Darrelle Revis should be able to do a job on Dolphins WR Mike Wallace. ... This could be a fatigued Bucs team after traveling back from Seattle, while the Dolphins had nine days off after last playing at home on a Thursday night.

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