Wednesday October 21st, 2015

The marathon that is the 17-week NFL regular season breaks down roughly into thirds. The six weeks that just ended represented the opening act, and now come the guts of the schedule, the five-week period that remains before Thanksgiving, with the Week 12 holiday weekend kicking off the season’s six-game backstretch and setting up the league’s playoff drama to come.

Week 7 begins with Thursday night’s watered down Seattle at San Francisco matchup in the NFC West, and Week 11 ends with a Monday-night rematch that pits Buffalo at New England in the long-monopolized AFC East. By the time this 69-game span of the schedule is complete, every team will have taken its bye week, and the division races should be coming to full boil.

Here’s a preview of the five weeks that lie ahead, with my take on the 15 most intriguing and meaningful games over the course of Weeks 7–11. As always, your results may vary.    

Week 7

New York Jets at New England Patriots—It feels like forever since the Jets (4–1) and Patriots (5–0) have played a game that held big stakes in the division, with New York not finishing within three games of New England in the East since 2010. But the reality is that the Jets almost always play the Patriots close, with five of their past six meetings being decided by three points or fewer, with two of those going to overtime. But then there’s this: Tom Brady at home against a divisional foe is 35–5, with one of those losses coming against Buffalo in Week 17 last season, when Brady was pulled from a game that New England didn’t have to win.

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On the plus side for the Jets? New York is responsible for three of those five losses Brady has suffered at home against a divisional opponent, including that memorable upset the Jets pulled in the 2010 AFC Divisional round, knocking off the top-seeded 14–2 Patriots. And don’t forget, Brady owes New York a debt of thanks, because it was the Jets that launched the Brady era in Foxboro with Mo Lewis knocking Drew Bledsoe out of a Week 2 Patriots loss in 2001, in the first game back after 9/11. With the Jets’ strong start being keyed by their talented defense and stout, Chris Ivory-led running game, Jets rookie head coach Todd Bowles has a team confident of its ability to stay in the game against the defending Super Bowl champions. 

• Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants—Did you know that in the 21-season period from 1989 to 2009, the NFC East advanced at least two teams to the playoffs in 17 of those years, but the division has now gone five consecutive seasons from 2010 to '14 with only its champion making the postseason? So, yes, the once-proud NFC East is a mottled mess. No argument here. But really, what else is new? Somebody has to win this race to mediocrity, and the 3–3 Giants and 2–3 Cowboys have as much right to dream as anyone.

Dallas at New York gives us one of our first rematches of the regular season, with the Cowboys having beaten the Giants in Texas in Week 1, when Eli Manning and Co. went into full late-game meltdown mode and displayed the worst clock management skills since Joe Pisarcik opted to hand off to Larry Csonka. The Cowboys haven’t won since Tony Romo went down in Week 2 at Philadelphia, which makes for a sense of desperation this week, with veteran QB Matt Cassel getting the start in place of Brandon Weeden. But Dallas has been uncanny on the road in the division since the start of 2012, going 9–1 overall and winning seven in a row in that span.

Week 8

• Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers—It’s all hiccups and giggles for Bengals fans right now, with Cincinnati off to its first 6–0 start in 27 years, and taking a well-timed bye this week before heading into its divisional showdown against the Steelers. But the Bengals can’t rest too easy because Pittsburgh has been the problem of late. Cincinnati lost twice by double digits to the Steelers in the last four weeks of 2014, and those defeats settled the AFC North championship in Pittsburgh’s favor. The Bengals are 1–4 at Heinz Field since the start of 2010, and 2–6 in their last eight trips to the Steel City.

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With Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger expected to be back from his knee injury in time for this game, it represents Cincinnati’s toughest road test yet for Andy Dalton and Co. The Bengals are 3–0 away from home this season, but those came against Oakland, Baltimore and Buffalo, with only last Sunday’s defeat of the Bills representing a win against a team with a winning record. As well as things have gone this season for Marvin Lewis’s well-balanced club, the Steelers are very much alive in the division, and until further notice the AFC North still goes through Pittsburgh.

• Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys—Before Carolina managed it last week in stunning comeback fashion, the Cowboys had been the last team to roll into Seattle and come out the victor, upsetting the defending Super Bowl champions 30–23 in Week 6 last season, a win that legitimized Dallas as an NFC playoff contender. The Seahawks are 2–4 and certainly need to beat the 49ers this Thursday night to make their trip to Dallas meaningful, but these two teams both made the NFC’s final four last season and could still put on a rally toward the postseason, where they’d instantly be considered dangerous.

The Cowboys still won’t have the injured Romo back for their Seattle game, but Dez Bryant will be ready to help Dallas improve its woeful home record. The Cowboys are just 5–6 at home in the regular season in 2014–15, and have never recaptured the homefield advantage they held at Texas Stadium. But Seattle might just be the right visitor to entertain, since the Seahawks are 0–3 on the road so far in 2014, and keep finding new and creative ways to give away fourth-quarter leads.

• Green Bay Packers at Denver Broncos—Unless we get a Packers-Broncos Super Bowl pairing that looks rather unlikely on the Denver end of things, this Sunday night showdown could be the second and final time Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning match quarterbacking skills. The two last faced off in 2008, when Rodgers was a first-year Green Bay starter and Manning was in his 11th season with the Colts. Green Bay routed Indianapolis 34–14 at Lambeau Field in Week 7 of that year, so it has been one week more than seven years since they’ve met.

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This will be Rodgers's first time starting a game in Denver, and both teams are guaranteed to still be undefeated since the Packers and Broncos are both on their bye in Week 7. If it’s not the league’s best offense versus the league’s best defense in this one, it’s darn close to that billing. That’s the real glamor matchup to watch. Denver, of course, pulled a Super Bowl upset of Green Bay in January 1998, but the Broncos haven’t beaten the Packers since '99 regular season, when they were still the two-time defending Super Bowl champs.      

• Indianapolis at Carolina—The Monday night matchup in Week 8 gives us an interesting first meeting of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft (Cam Newton) against the No. 1 overall pick in the '12 draft (Andrew Luck). Both have elevated their clubs to perennial playoff contenders at this point, but the Panthers’ 5-0 start to this season, capped by that win in Seattle on Sunday, far out-distances what the disappointing 3–3 Colts have accomplished.

With Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano under siege for his team’s disastrous fake-punt call Sunday night in the seven-point loss to the Patriots—I love the “Swinging Gate-Gate” moniker—every Colts game is now must-see TV and a pressure-packed affair. And it doesn’t get easier for Indianapolis, because Denver is headed to town in Week 9.

Week 9

• Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers—At the moment, the Packers and Panthers are the NFC’s last two undefeated teams, with both clubs having advanced to the conference’s final four last year, seeing their seasons die in Seattle in consecutive weeks. Will this be the game that helps decide the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs?

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Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers will be meeting for the third time, with Green Bay having won both previous games, in Newton’s rookie season of 2011 and again last year in Green Bay, 38-17. But that was in the midst of the Panthers’ 3-8-1 start to 2014. Since December arrived, Carolina is 10-1 including the playoffs, and has no reason to fear a visiting Packers team that could be slowed down considerably by the Panthers’ underrated defense.

• Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts—Peyton Manning returns for a second and perhaps final time to Indianapolis, and somehow he and his successor, Andrew Luck, have already faced off in three previous games the past two seasons. The Colts beat the Broncos at home in October 2013, and then the two teams split their pair of games last year in Denver. The Broncos got the win in the Sunday night Week 1 opener, but the Colts got their revenge in the AFC Divisional playoffs, knocking off Denver to log yet another Manning one-and-done postseason appearance.

Neither quarterback has played like much of a franchise savior this season, and by the time Week 9 rolls around, who knows where the state of Manning and Luck’s game will stand?

• Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys—This is the rematch of the Cowboys’ dismantling of the Eagles in Philadelphia in Week 2, the game in which Dallas QB Tony Romo suffered his broken collarbone. Romo still won’t be back from his eight-week recovery window by the time this game arrives, so it’ll have a different feel than the first meeting did. 

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The Eagles have loved playing in Dallas as of late. They won big on Thanksgiving Day last year, 33–10, and are 2–0 under Chip Kelly when visiting Arlington. DeMarco Murray’s return to Dallas highlights this Sunday night matchup, and he still owes the Cowboys a little something after being held to a galling two yards on 13 carries in Week 2. You have to like the Eagles chances in this one, because the series has been dominated by the visitor. The road team has won five in a row, and nine of 11 overall.

Week 10

• New England Patriots at New York Giants—If this is shaping up as another Super Bowl season in Foxboro, the Patriots certainly don’t want to see the Giants prosper and make the playoffs. New York, as we all know, is New England’s Kryptonite. The Patriots and Giants haven’t played each other since New York won its second Super Bowl under Tom Coughlin, 21–17 in Indianapolis, in Feb. 2012. The Giants have actually won three in a row in the series, earning a 2011 regular-season win, and then posting that one-of-a-kind Super Bowl upset of the 18–0 Patriots in early '08. That makes New England’s last win against its nemesis that 38–35 road victory in Week 17 of the 2007 season, and even then, the Giants got most of the credit for putting up such a monumental fight that day.

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The Giants have to get some things figured out between now and Week 10 in order to make this game everything it could be, but Coughlin does seem to have Bill Belichick’s number, and maybe another perfect season in New England will go down the drain at the hands of Big Blue. For Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, this is the first half of his three-week Manning-Manning doubleheader: A matchup with Eli in Week 10, and our annual Brady-Peyton Manning encounter Week 12 in Denver.

• Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks—Again, we’re projecting Seattle’s sustained relevance in the NFC West race, but if Pete Carroll’s club hasn’t imploded by then, this Sunday-night game will be headline material. The Cardinals won 11 games last season, but two of their five losses came against the Seahawks, by a combined score of 54–9, with Arizona being held without a touchdown. Both made the playoffs in 2014, but that seems like ancient history at this point.

If current trends hold, the Cardinals will be the first-place club and Seattle the pursuer, but that was the case last year as well when these two met in Weeks 12 and 16, with the Seahawks making their strong second-half push to the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The rematch this season comes in Arizona in Week 17, and we’ll be lucky if we still have a division race to follow at that point.

Week 11

• Indianapolis Colts at Atlanta Falcons—The Colts are on this list a lot for a team that’s 3–3 and floundering, but need I remind you they play in the woeful AFC South, which they have thoroughly dominated from its inception in 2002? So chances are, unless the Texans, Jaguars or Titans surprise us, the Colts are going back to the playoffs, problems and all.

And besides, the Falcons are one of the stories of the year thus far in the NFL, winning five of their first six games after combining for just 10 victories over the course of 2013–14. Under rookie coach Dan Quinn, Atlanta has remade itself almost overnight, with an aggressive defense, potent running game and a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks. And there’s the continued excellence of the Falcons Matt Ryan-led passing game, with receiver Julio Jones testing a so-so Colts secondary. This game also features the first time Ryan and Andrew Luck have faced off, with the two former first-round picks being the first quarterbacks taken in 2008 and '12, respectively.

• Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings—The Packers and Vikings will in all likelihood be the two playoff contenders in the NFC North this season, and they won’t meet for a second time until Week 17 in frosty Green Bay. That make this game a must for the Vikings’ hopes of pushing the Packers all season long in the division that Green Bay owns.

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The series is usually entertaining, but the Packers are 9-1-1 against The Purple since being forced to take their Brett Favre-administered medicine in 2009, when Favre helped Minnesota sweep that year’s season series. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson missed a whole season in this rivalry last year, and this is his first crack at Green Bay in Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater quarterback era.

• Cincinnati Bengals at Arizona Cardinals—The Bengals and Cardinals were one-and-done playoff participants last season, and both have far bigger goals in sight this time around. When these clubs get quality quarterbacking, they win. A lot. And the storyline of this game is highlighted by Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer going against a Cincinnati team that he played for from 2003–10, before he essentially forced the Bengals to trade him to Oakland in '11.

Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians had that long tenure as an assistant in Pittsburgh, so he knows all about the Bengals and what a Marvin Lewis-coached team is capable of. Two quality defenses and a pair of well-balanced offenses that can both pass and run the ball with equal skill should be on display in Glendale in this Sunday afternoon marquee matchup.

• Buffalo at New England—The Monday night game in Week 11, falling just three days before Thanksgiving, could wind up being very appetizing. The Bills and Patriots get their rematch of Week 2, when New England built a huge lead in Buffalo and then held on for dear life to post a 40–32 win against Rex Ryan and Co. As always, Ryan talked big and bold before the game, but then the Bills didn’t back it up. Buffalo is now 3–24 against Tom Brady, and 3–27 in its past 30 games against the Patriots.

The Patriots almost did Buffalo a favor by refusing to take their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter. They kept throwing, and that gave the Bills time to rally. Brady wound up throwing for three touchdowns and 466 yards (the second most of his career and the most by any opposing quarterback against the Bills). Will Buffalo still be in the AFC East playoff discussion by Nov. 23? Let’s hope so, because it’s never dull when Ryan’s team is in contention.

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