Friday October 28th, 2011

Can DeMarco Murray come close to matching his Week 7 performance? He'll be a factor in Eagles-Cowboys. (Manny Flores/Cal Sports Media)

Week 7 of the NFL schedule had a few moments here and there but was mostly a dud. Week 8 certainly looks a lot more promising.

There are intriguing and important matchups up and down the weekend schedule, with the action really heating up for Sunday's late games and carrying through Monday night.

It's about the time of year that the true playoff contenders emerge, while those masquerading as challengers are exposed. What's on tap for Week 8? Here are the best storylines:

Rookie QBs clash in Carolina

Cam Newton already got the best of fellow 2011 first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert back in Week 3. Now, Newton has to deal with Minnesota rookie Christian Ponder.

What Newton has done in his rookie season has been well documented -- he's no doubt one of the leaders for Offensive Rookie of the Year, up there with Andy Dalton and possibly A.J. Green. Ponder, though, gave his reeling Vikings teammates a shot in the arm last week, nearly guiding them to a stunning upset of undefeated Green Bay.

If Ponder can carry any of his Week 7 mojo over to Week 8, he has the ability to go toe-to-toe with Newton.

Will the Saints score 70?

New Orleans hung a 62-spot on Indianapolis last week, in an absolute blowout win on Sunday night. One week later, the Saints travel to St. Louis to take on another winless team.

And the Rams' defense is nearly as bad as Indy's -- the Colts rank last in the league at 32.1 points allowed; the Rams are next at 28.5. For a St. Louis team that nearly won the NFC West last season and seemed primed to compete again this year, things have unraveled shockingly fast. New Orleans does not figure to help the Rams up off the mat.

Titans try to turn it around

Sooner or later, the Titans' inability to run the football was going to catch up to them. It's happened over their last two outings -- losses to Pittsburgh and Houston by a combined 79-20 count.

So, is Tennessee, now 3-3 on the year, doomed to fall out of contention, leaving Houston to run away with the AFC South? Or can Matt Hasselbeck and the boys rally and stay in the race?

The answer may lie with Chris Johnson, who continues to take more and more heat with each passing week. Johnson said this week that he's not to blame for his troubles running the football, and he was backed by multiple players on Tennessee's offense. But the Titans sure didn't hand Johnson a monster contract extension this summer for 45 yards rushing a game.

Can Tim Tebow do it again?

Rallying for a dramatic win against a hapless Miami team is one thing. Beating an angry 5-2 Lions squad is quite another.

That's the task before Tebow in Week 8. He stole the spotlight last Sunday with a late 15-point rally to give Denver an overtime win. But lost in all the hoopla was that Tebow played terribly for the first 55 minutes or so.

A repeat effort probably won't fly against Detroit, which is desperate to break a two-game losing skid. And despite the Lions' unexpected struggles on the defensive line so far, Tebow will see more heat than he did against the Dolphins. If he brings home another win, there may be no stopping the hype.

Tom Brady takes aim at the Steel Curtain

The Pittsburgh defense has shut down a lot of great quarterbacks over the years, but Brady has had the Steelers' number. In seven starts against Pittsburgh since 2001, playoffs included, Brady is 6-1 and has a completion percentage of nearly 70.

Brady's ability to spread the field and distribute the ball takes away the Steelers' attempts to blitz. Bringing five or six defenders consistently doesn't work when the QB is capable of connecting with five receivers on any given play.

Pittsburgh could use this one -- the Steelers are back on top of the AFC North for the moment, thanks to Baltimore's Week 7 loss at Jacksonville. But to win Sunday, they'll have to figure out how to slow down Brady's bunch.

Cowboys, Eagles clash in prime time

Two weeks ago, the Eagles looked like they might be dead in the NFC East after falling to 1-4. The good news for them is that the rest of the division continues to be mediocre -- the Giants are on top at 4-2, with Dallas and Washington at 3-3.

So the now 2-4 Eagles have a big shot to get back in the race Sunday night, if they can take down the Cowboys.

Dallas finally has gotten healthy again at wide receiver, with Miles Austin and Dez Bryant teaming up, and rookie DeMarco Murray made everyone forget about Felix Jones last week with a team record-setting effort on the ground.

There's a good chance this will come down to Tony Romo vs. Michael Vick, just as the prime-time audience would want it.

Chiefs fighting back into AFC West race

Kansas City found itself in a similar boat as Philadelphia -- written off just a few weeks back, following an 0-3 start. But the Chiefs, like the Eagles, have bounced back.

Suddenly, at 3-3, Kansas City is just a game behind first-place San Diego and can erase that deficit with a Halloween night win over the Chargers. The Chargers still seem to be the team to beat in the AFC West, even with Carson Palmer in Oakland, but to hold that position, they'll need Philip Rivers to start playing like himself again. A San Diego win Monday would give them a season sweep of K.C., and put the Chiefs in a gigantic hole. A Kansas City win would totally muddle the AFC West race.

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