Friday October 14th, 2011

The Eagles are in a must-win situation as they prepare to face division rivals, the Redskins. (Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE)

The NFL season has reached that point where it's hard to write off any results as flukes anymore. The preseason rust should be gone, the lockout's lingering effects should be nil and elite teams should be playing like elite teams.

So, the outcomes from some big Week 6 matchups will tell us a lot about who is in this thing for the long haul.

A look at the key storylines to watch this weekend:

• Swing game in the NFC East

Are the Eagles really as bad as they've looked so far this year? Are the Redskins really the team to beat in the NFC East? We'll be a lot closer to answering both those questions Sunday, when the two division rivals clash in Washington.

For a lot of reasons, this is probably a must-win for the Eagles -- the most pressing being that a loss would drop them a staggering four games back in the division with 10 to play, all but eliminating them from postseason contention. A Philly win, however, would give every team in the division at least two losses and setup a frantic race to the finish line.

But the Redskins have been waiting for this chance. Amid all the talk about the Bills, Lions and 49ers, Washington quietly has started authoring its own redemption story. Garnering some national attention and effectively ending the Eagles' season would make for a good Sunday in D.C.

• Another showdown in the Motor City

Lions fans probably could get used to this. Less than one week after hosting Chicago in a key Monday night matchup, Detroit is the site of another big NFC matchup. This one, though, came totally out of nowhere.

The 5-0 Lions host the 4-1, NFC West-leading 49ers in a possible playoff preview. Yeah, soak that sentence in.

Detroit has received the, uh, lion's share of attention across the NFL thus far, but San Francisco's turnaround is no less impressive. The winner here takes a huge step toward making the postseason.

• Can Derrick Mason help Houston?

The Texans went out this week and traded for veteran Derrick Mason, who had fallen out of favor with the Jets. Mason gets to make his second trip of the season to Baltimore, where he played from 2005 to '10.

In Mason's last visit there, Week 4 with New York, he had two catches for 37 yards in a 34-17 loss. Houston needs more production than that, with Andre Johnson still hobbled by a sore hamstring and every other receiver not named Kevin Walter unable to make any plays.

Will Mason deliver? If not, it could be a tough road trip for the Texans.

• Remembering Al Davis in Oakland

The Raiders paid a huge tribute to recently-deceased owner Al Davis by gutting out a win in Houston last week. Sunday figures to be much more emotional, as Oakland says its farewells to Davis in front of a packed house.

The franchise has a halftime ceremony set to honor Davis, as well as other tribute moments throughout the game.

The challenge for the Raiders will be to avoid getting too caught up in all of that, because the pesky Browns have their eyes on an important road win. Our theme this week seems to be teams that are better than we expected, and if Oakland gets to 4-2 Sunday, you can add another name to that list.

• Healthier Cowboys take aim at Patriots

Philadelphia-Washington is the marquee NFC East matchup Sunday, but Dallas also has its hands full with a trip to New England on the docket.

The good news for the Cowboys is that Dez Bryant and Miles Austin both look like they may suit up for Week 6, giving Tony Romo his full complement of receivers for the first time in several weeks. That's bad news for a Patriots secondary that has struggled to stop anyone in 2011.

But can Dallas slow down Tom Brady enough to win this one? The scoreboard might light up early and often in Foxborough.

• NFC South lead on the line

So far, the Falcons are nowhere to be found in the NFC South race, leaving New Orleans and Tampa Bay to duke it out for first. The Saints and Bucs meet Sunday in Tampa, with the winner staking an early claim to the division lead.

The result would be more telling if New Orleans wins -- in that case, the Saints would have a two-game lead on Tampa Bay and at least a two-game edge on Atlanta (which hosts Carolina Sunday).

The Bucs will be without starting running back LeGarrette Blount, making it that much harder for them to control the ball and the clock.

• Now or never for Vikings, Bears

The Packers and Lions are so far out in front of the Vikings and Bears in the NFC North that unless we're headed for some sort of "The Tortoise and the Hare" twist at the end here, the division will be a two-team race.

If Minnesota or Chicago -- and probably more so the latter, given what we've seen so far -- has any inclination of battling for a wild-card spot or making life hard on Green Bay and Detroit, it has to start Sunday night. The Vikings visit the Bears for a nationally-televised game.

A Chicago blowout win would add fuel to the QB controversy in Minnesota, where the fans are starting to clamor for rookie Christian Ponder over Donovan McNabb.

• Jets' chance to bounce back

Miami and the Jets enter Monday night's game at the Meadowlands reeling -- the former at 0-4 and its coach's seat burning up; the latter a disappointing 2-3 and in desperate need of a win.

If the Jets are to get this thing turned around, they 100 percent cannot afford a loss to the Dolphins at home. But Miami coach Tony Sparano has had the Jets' number in New York in recent years. Can he pull off another upset? If he does, things might get really ugly for Rex Ryan's team.

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