As the NFL season nears its midpoint, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss which NFC Championship Game participant from last season is most likely to turn its inconsistent start around, how soon we can expect to see Johnny Manziel on the field in Cleveland and the most intriguing matchups they'll be watching this weekend.
More likely to make the playoffs: Seahawks or 49ers?
Chris Burke: Neither team has been particularly good this season. I still think the Seahawks have the best chance, if for no other reason than that the 49ers have already taken a loss to the first-place Cardinals.
That answer could swing the other way if NaVorro Bowman returns at 100 percent from his leg injury and Aldon Smith plays like we know he can once his suspension ends. Add in those two guys, and the 49ers' defense can take the leap from pretty good to great, which would take a lot of pressure off their offense.
Seattle has injury issues of its own, but its offense has not gone through the fluctuations that we've seen from Colin Kaepernick and company. Prior to their sloppy 13-9 win in Carolina, the Seahawks had scored at least 21 points in every game, paced by their rushing attack; San Francisco has had three games with 20 or fewer points, all losses.
This might come down to the head-to-head matchups. San Francisco hosts Seattle on Thanksgiving night, then the venue flips two weeks later. Neither team can avoid to be swept.
Doug Farrar: Seahawks. At some point in the near future, San Francisco will welcome Smith and Bowman back to its defense, which has operated pretty admirably without those two stars. And the 49ers' offense has been good enough of late, but the 42-17 beating the Broncos put on Jim Harbaugh's team in Week 7, especially how out of sorts Colin Kaepernick looked in that game, is cause for concern. The Seahawks have their own injury issues on both sides of the ball, specifically at linebacker and defensive back, and Richard Sherman hasn't been his old self as a result. Seattle's run game is up-and-down, they've had to put too much on Russell Wilson's shoulders and the offensive line is still an issue. But I like the Seahawks' defensive line a little more, their home-field advantage down the stretch is a bit stronger and I do think we'll see more diversity from their offense now that Percy Harvin is out of town.
Neither team looks like a world-beater this season, and as usually is the case, these two teams will have to go through each other to reach their goals. With the Cardinals protecting a two-game division lead, it's tough to imagine both of these teams getting in the playoffs, so expect those regular-season battles to have even more juice than they usually do.
Will Johnny Manziel start a game for the Browns this season? If so, when?
Burke: Yes, but only if the Browns fall out of contention. As long as they're winning games, it would be very difficult to make the move away from Brian Hoyer, even though he has been erratic the past two weeks.
Let's not forget that Hoyer is set to enter free agency once this season ends, meaning that some critical decisions loom, whether Cleveland wants to face them or not. If the plan is to let Hoyer walk or to bring him back on a relatively cheap, short-term deal so he has to keep winning the starting gig, then the Browns will have to find out what they have in Manziel sooner rather than later.
For now, though, they're 4-3 and in the thick of the AFC North race. Hoyer has helped them get there.
Farrar: Only if Hoyer gets hurt. Manziel is in a frustrating position -- I've never been convinced that head coach Mike Pettine wanted the Browns' front office to take Manziel, and with Brian Hoyer performing well enough for a team with no expectations, there's little motivation to make a change. If Hoyer gets hurt, or performs at a drastically sub-par level, maybe the Browns make a desperation move, but that's what it would be.
In his preseason snaps, Manziel didn't really show that he had the speed of the NFL down, and the Browns aren't in a position where they have to give him game reps. Honestly, Cleveland might have been best-served by seeing what the market for him would have been before the trade deadline -- I'm sure Jerry Jones had visions of Johnny Football dancing in his head when Tony Romo went down against the Redskins last Monday night.
Which matchup are you keeping an eye on this weekend?
Burke: Eagles vs. Texans. Denver at New England and Baltimore at Pittsburgh are the obvious choices, but Philadelphia's trip to Houston may be just as important.
The Texans have managed to hang around in the AFC South race, scratching and clawing their way to four wins. Still, they have been relatively unimpressive overall, so it's fair to wonder if they can do more than push for a .500 season. A win over Philadelphia ahead of their Week 10 bye would count as a statement game.
Meanwhile, the Eagles are sitting amid a jumble of NFC teams that look like they could get hot and make a Super Bowl run. Right now, however, they're still waiting for their offense to kick into high gear, and their defense has made some key mistakes -- John Brown's game-winning touchdown last week is a perfect example. Both teams needs this game.
Farrar: New England's defense vs. Denver's offense. If the Patriots are anticipating a grudge match with Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game this year, it would behoove them to pull off a win at Gillette Stadium on Sunday -- the way Denver is rolling, any AFC playoff game involving the Broncos will be played in the Mile High City. And to do that, Bill Belichick's defense will have to deal with the most talented and diverse group of targets Manning has ever had. It's enough of a nightmare when you have to deal with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker, but the offseason signing of Emmanuel Sanders was a stroke of genius on John Elway's part.
Unlike Eric Decker, Sanders provides elite speed anywhere in the formation and with any route combination, and that's a stern test for any defense. The Pats can stick Darrelle Revis on Demaryius Thomas and maybe put super-sized cornerback Brandon Browner on Julius Thomas, but this game could come down to how the other matchups are handled. Do you put Logan Ryan on Welker? That would make sense, as Ryan is a better slot defender. Is covering Sanders up to Kyle Arrington, who's been more New England's slot guy this season, or do they switch it up? Tough questions against an offense that provides very few easy answers.
Oh, yeah -- there's also the matter of New England's run defense, which has been affected by the season-ending injury to linebacker Jerod Mayo. Running back Ronnie Hillman may be able to gash that middle when the Pats are playing nickel defenses against those lethal receivers.