My weekly look at key matchups and storylines to watch in one game at each time slot. (All times Eastern).
Sunday 1 p.m.Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
Some in Houston are calling this the biggest game in franchise history. They may be right. The Texans are 5-3 and trying to earn their first playoff berth. Getting a win on the road and slaying the Colts dragon at the same time would be monumental and the breakthrough win they have been seeking.
They appear to be getting the Colts at exactly the right time. Even though Peyton Manning and company had solid yardage numbers against the 49ers last week, they generated just 18 points. Manning was not as sharp as normal, missing potential touchdown passes to Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon. Couple that San Francisco getting to Manning for three sacks, more than the Colts had given up all season, and you can see why the Texans are confident they can beat the Colts for just the second time in franchise history.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts defense is first in the league in points against. Their depth is about to be tested, however, as this week they lost cornerback Marlin Jackson and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler for the season and learned that safety Bob Sanders is out indefinitely because of elbow surgery. Stellar defensive back Kelvin Hayden is also battling injuries. That's a problem considering the Texans come into this game with red-hot quarterback Matt Schaub leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns, though he did lose tight end Owen Daniels this week.
Sunday 4:15 p.m.San Diego Chargers at New York Giants
The Giants can't really be as bad as they have appeared the past three weeks, can they? Well, they are about to find out as their suspect secondary will be severely tested by emerging star wideout Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates. Look for the Chargers to attack C.C. Brown, who has struggled mightily and drawn the ire of the Giants faithful, many of whom are starting to believe the C.C. stands for "Can't Cover."
Offensively the Giants need to get back to their run-game roots against a Chargers front that hasn't made up for the loss of nose tackle Jamal Williams. When the Giants do throw, Eli Manning needs to snap out of the three-game funk he has been in. He may not have time against outside linebackers Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman, who litup JaMarcus Russell for multiple sacks last week.
Sunday 8:20 p.m.Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Anyone who has watched the Cowboys lately realizes how successful a talented offense can be when nobody cares who gets the credit. Are you listening, T.O.? And the Cowboys won't let the media cause any infighting after the harmless comments from Roy Williams this week that he and Tony Romo are not on the same page.
The matchup to watch in this one is freshly minted Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware against Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, who has been somewhat of a disappointment in his first season in Philly. If the Cowboys, led by Ware, can get to Donovan McNabb without having to bring extra bodies, that can help them contain and potentially double team wideout DeSean Jackson, who is quickly becoming one of the most explosive players in the NFL. Dallas simply cannot afford to give up the big plays to Jackson and hope to win.
Monday 8:30 p.m.Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
It is critical for the Broncos to get off to a fast start to restore any confidence lost in their humbling defeat to the Ravens last week. There have been several teams this year, like the Jets and Giants, that have really struggled going forward after they lost their first game in a big spot. The Broncos can't afford to lose the swagger and faith they had as a result of winning their first six games.
The Steelers should be fresh after having enjoyed an extended break during their bye week. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact the likely absence of Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who has a rare sickle cell trait that affects him in altitude, has on the Pittsburgh defense. Clark is one of the most underrated players in the league and his presence allows Troy Polamalu to freelance and make plays. Whether or not Polamalu still has that freedom without his partner in crime in the secondary could be a factor.
On to the mail...
Ross, while I can't disagree with the assessment that the Packers coaches should have provided more help to the tackles, the special teams coach was quoted as saying the long kickoff return was supposed to be another squib kick that kicker Mason Crosby mishit when his plant foot slipped. Now as to not being able to properly execute a squib kick.....--Kevin, Peoria, Ill.
Thanks for pointing that out. I still would like an explanation for leaving their young tackles all alone as often as they did. Given the fact the Packers likely will start veterans Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher this week, maybe it is just easier for the Green Bay coaches to blame it on personnel.
Ross, forgive me if this has been asked you before, but my wife wants to know how much these huge linemen eat to keep that weight up. Some look downright roly-poly while others look pretty lean. I'm sure it's an individual matter but can you take us into a typical meal or day of meals for one of these giants? Also, is it a chore to eat so much or do most guys love to eat? Do the married guys wives cook or is it a team thing? What about the single guys? Thanks for your articles. Getting a glimpse of the inside is always fascinating.--Florian Kubes, Montreal
It really varies depending upon the individual. There are some guys who have to diet and actually watch what they eat to stay below a certain weight. They typically focus on keeping their calories down and eating low fat foods.
Conversely, there are a number of linemen who have to pretty much force-feed themselves to stay above a certain weight. I know guys who would set their alarm clock during the night so that they could get up and eat egg whites or something of that nature every three hours. I maintained my playing weight by eating what I would consider a normal amount of food, though normal is probably relative for a 320-pound person.
The 49ers' switch to Alex Smith seems a desperation move by a first-year coach. Mike Singletary had a very extensive QB competition in the preseason and clearly felt Smith was a backup. Now, after one half of playing against a team using soft coverage, Smith is the answer? Don't the players see through this?--Rob Harrison, Arcadia, Calif.
I am a big fan of Singletary but I felt he gave Shaun Hill a quick hook considering the number of games Hill had won and the fact Singletary might not even have the job were it not for Hill's performance down the stretch in 2008. I found his decision to start Michael Crabtree in his first game to be even more curious and surprisingly counter to everything else Singletary has preached since taking over.
Which team in the AFC and NFC would benefit most from home-field advantage and why?--@maxflipper via Twitter
In the AFC, it is the Colts given their aerial attack and deficiencies running the ball and stopping the run. They won't excel in bad weather. In the NFC, I would say the Saints because of their raucous crowd, even though their running game has been good enough this year that they could still survive on the road.
How big is the return of Chris Canty and Michael Boley for the Giants?--@colbyjohnston via Twitter
Huge. Canty will allow the defensive line to once again attack in waves. Boley is a true difference-maker because of his speed and what he can get done in space.