Like an Alfred Hitchcock production, the NFL season continues to keep us in suspense. Of the 133 games played so far, 92 (69.2 percent) have been within seven points in the fourth quarter -- the most through the first nine weeks of any season in league history.
Thirty-five games have been marked by fourth-quarter comeback victories. And in 30 games, the winning points came in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime.
Look for the intrigue to continue with these must-see games in Week 10.
Carolina Panthers (5-3) at San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
Excluding unbeaten Kansas City, these are the hottest teams in the league. The 49ers have won five games in a row, outscoring opponents 174 to 61 during that stretch. The Panthers have outscored foes by an average of 32.5 to 12 during their four-game winning streak.
San Francisco is winning with the most unbalanced offense in the NFL. Behind one of the most dominating lines in the league, running back Frank Gore and Co. are averaging a league-high 153 yards rushing per game. The 49ers' 15 rushing touchdowns are the most in the league.
By contrast, the team ranks last in passing (189.9 yards per game). The 49ers have attempted the fewest passes of any team (199) and no wide receiver other than Anquan Boldin (38 receptions for 551 yards) has caught more than 11 passes. The good news is that quarterback Colin Kaepernick might start getting some more weapons. This week, the team activated wide receiver Mario Manningham, who had been out since suffering a knee injury last Dec. 23, and cleared wideout Michael Crabtree to return to practice for the first time since he tore his Achilles tendon during OTAs back in May. The 49ers are hoping Crabtree will be available to play by mid-to-late November.
Some pundits believe the 49ers are the best team in the NFC, even though Seattle (8-1) has a better record and whipped up on San Francisco (29-3) in Week 2. The 49ers have scored 30 or more points in five consecutive games, and have forced 13 turnovers during that stretch, capitalizing on every one (nine touchdowns, four field goals).
Four weeks ago, Carolina was 1-3 and Ron Rivera was a dead man coaching. Now, the Panthers have hoisted themselves to within one game of first-place New Orleans in the NFC South and Rivera has received a reprieve.
Many skeptics still question the Panthers, given that they have yet to beat a team with a winning record and that their opponents are a combined 10-35. The next two games will determine whether they are legit. If they can beat the 49ers on the road and New England at home, the Panthers will have earned their credentials as playoff contenders.
Carolina leads the league in fewest points allowed (106), average time of possession (34 minutes), is third in total defense and has become Rivera-boat gamblers, having converted five of six fourth-and-1 situations on offense. Oh yeah. Their quarterback is pretty good, too. Cam Newton is the only player in NFL history with 50 or more passing touchdowns (53) and 25 or more rushing TDs (26) in his first 40 NFL games.
Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at New Orleans Saints (6-2)
Figuratively donning his doctor's scrubs, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones this week pronounced DeMarcus Ware ready to return to action. The 31-year-old defensive end who missed the previous three games because of a strained quadriceps could play Sunday night in a matchup of division leaders. If so, the timing couldn't be better for the Cowboys defense, which must take on Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In the six games he played, Ware had four sacks and 16 quarterback pressures. His return should beef up the team's pass rush and take some pressure off a secondary that has struggled.
New Orleans is coming off a sloppy 26-20 road loss to the Jets, which was not one of Brees' finer performances. But with 21 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions, he remains a challenge for any defense. The Cowboys also will have their hands full with Jimmy Graham, the best tight end in the game, who has 49 receptions for 746 yards and 10 TDs despite a recent bout of planter fasciitis.
Denver Broncos (7-1) at San Diego Chargers (4-4)
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio takes over as Denver's interim head coach in place of John Fox, who this week underwent heart valve replacement surgery and could miss most, if not all, of the rest of the season. The Broncos' potent offense should continue ticking without missing a beat because for everything else he is, quarterback Peyton Manning is like a coach on the field. Del Rio, who was a head coach in Jacksonville for nearly nine seasons, must work on getting the defense to play better. Denver ranks 24th overall and 30th against the pass. Beating the Chargers in San Diego won't be easy, especially if the Broncos get ahead of themselves and start looking toward next week's AFC West showdown with the unbeaten Chiefs.
Quarterback Philip Rivers needs to continue his high level of play if the Chargers entertain hopes of making the playoffs (San Diego faces Denver and Kansas City twice each in the final half of the season). Rivers leads the league in completion percentage (72.2), ranks third in passer rating (106.5) and has thrown 17 touchdown passes.
Detroit Lions (5-3) at Chicago Bears (5-3)
There's a bottleneck atop the NFC North, where Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago all are 5-3. With Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (broken collarbone) expected to be out for an extended period and Green Bay facing the Eagles and quarterback Nick Foles (an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes last week) Sunday at home, the winner of this game could take over first place by itself.
The Lions duo of quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson has become one of the most entertaining acts in the league. Stafford is on pace for 5,234 passing yards, which would be the third-most in NFL history, and Johnson, who is coming off a 329-yard performance against Dallas last week, could become the first player to have three consecutive seasons with 1,600 or more receiving yards. Backup quarterback Josh McCown did a nice job of keeping the Bears on a steady pace while filling in for Jay Cutler (groin injury), who will return to the field after missing only one full game.