As the NFL season approaches the midway point, attrition is starting to rear its ugly, painful head. Last week alone, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, Texans linebacker Brian Cushing and Bengals cornerback Leon Hall all suffered season-ending injuries. Quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs of the Bears, Texans running back Arian Foster and Bucs running back Doug Martin were lost for extended periods of time. And a horrific collision that resulted in a serious neck injury to Jermichael Finley left the Packers tight end's career in jeopardy.
But like in other forms of entertainment, the show must go on -- the NFL's mantra is Next Man Up -- and these are the must-see games for Week 8.
New York Jets (4-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-2)
October has been kind to the Bengals, who have won three straight games this month: a huge win at home against New England followed by back-to-back 27-24 road victories over Buffalo and Detroit. A popular preseason pick in the AFC North, Cincinnati has surged to the top of the division and holds a two-game lead over the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and Cleveland.
In his third season as the starter, Andy Dalton is starting to live up to the expectations the Bengals' scouting department had when it selected him in the second round of the 2011 draft. Dalton has thrown three touchdown passes in each of the last two games, and his 135.9 passer rating against Detroit was the highest of his career.
It may have looked like the Jets walked around with a little more swagger this week. Beating Tom Brady and the Patriots can swell the chests a bit. And now New York, a team that appeared downtrodden before the season began, suddenly is just one game out of first place in the AFC East.
Rookie Geno Smith still needs to cut down on his turnovers, but he is the first quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lead his team to four fourth-quarter or overtime victories in his first seven games. He's had some help from timely penalties and Nick Folk, who kicked game-winning field goals in three of those four games and has been perfect (16 for 16) so far.
Cleveland Browns (3-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-0)
The Chiefs are the first team in league history to start 7-0 after losing at least 14 games the year before, yet some skeptics continue to pick them apart. They site their "weak" schedule (opponents are a combined 15-33 and only one of them currently has a winning record), label Alex Smith as a "caretaker" quarterback, and wonder how the Chiefs will respond when they face a sizeable deficit.
There's no question that defense is Kansas City's hallmark. The Chiefs have allowed 81 points (only 17 in the fourth quarter), the fewest in the league. They lead the NFL in sacks (35) and turnover differential (plus 11). They have scored five touchdowns on defense or special teams.
Offensively, running back Jamaal Charles has had at least 100 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in each of the first seven games; the only other player to accomplish that feat was O.J. Simpson, in 1975. And Smith is a better quarterback than some people think. In his last 32 starts (including his time with San Francisco), he is 26-5-1 with 37 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions. He has committed only four turnovers in his last 250 pass attempts.
Early in the week, Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson practically guaranteed that his team would beat the Chiefs, but the Browns will face a huge challenge at Arrowhead Stadium, where the seats are a sea of red and the decibel level reaches record highs. The Browns made a change at quarterback this week when first-year coach Rob Chudzinski benched Brandon Weeden in favor of Jason Campbell. Campbell will be the third starting quarterback this season for Cleveland.
Dallas Cowboys (4-3) at Detroit Lions (4-3)
A change in style has helped the Cowboys, who have won two in a row and lead the NFC East. Dallas has gone from playing less of coordinator Monte Kiffin's beloved Tampa 2 defense to more man coverage. So far, so good. After giving up 81 points in back-to-back losses to San Diego and Denver, the Cowboys allowed only 19 points in wins over Washington and Philadelphia.
Kiffin believes cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can survive the pressure of playing man. Carr has been particularly effective in the last two games, holding Washington's Pierre Garcon (targeted 15 times) to six catches for 69 yards and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson (eight targets) to three receptions for 21 yards.
Carr and the Cowboys will face their biggest challenge yet in Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. After a knee injury forced him to miss a game against Green Bay and play mostly a decoy roll against Cleveland, "Megatron" looked like his old dominating self last week against Cincinnati, catching nine passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he has 33 receptions for 492 yards and six touchdowns.
Washington Redskins (2-4) at Denver Broncos (6-1)
We just can't seem to get enough of Peyton Manning, can we? Even though he didn't perform at his customary level of excellence in last week's loss to Indianapolis, he darn near engineered another fourth-quarter comeback victory. At 37, Manning is playing as well as ever. It will be interesting to watch how he and the Broncos respond to their first defeat of the season.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III started slowly this season -- after all, he was coming back from major knee surgery -- but recently has shown signs of the old RG3. His passing accuracy and mobility have improved, and it looks like he again is the dual threat he was as a rookie last year.
Washington coach Mike Shanahan returns to the Mile High City in a football capacity for the first time since owner Pat Bowlen fired him after the 2008 season. The Broncos, who won back-to-back Super Bowls under Shanahan's watch, plan to honor him with a 35-second video salute right after the Redskins players are introduced before the game.