NFL Week 7 storylines: Duel for AFC's top spot, NFC East lead up for grabs
Considering Houston and Baltimore stand as the only two AFC teams above .500, there are an inordinate amount of concerns about both heading into their Week 6 matchup.
The Ravens are 5-1 and hold a two-game edge in the AFC North, but have walked a tightrope lately. Baltimore held on for dear life to win in Kansas City, then needed a missed field goal to down Dallas. Gone for the season are starting cornerback Lardarius and linebacker (/defensive heart and soul) Ray Lewis. Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata are hobbling, too, and even the impending return of Terrell Suggs might not be enough to get the Ravens' defense back on track.
Houston, meanwhile, lost linebacker Brian Cushing for the season in Week 5. Last Sunday, in their first game post-Cushing, the Texans were taken to school by Green Bay, putting a serious dent in their "elite team" argument.
All that said, the winner of Sunday's key showdown has to be considered the favorite (at least for now) to grab the AFC's top playoff seed and home-field advantage. One of these teams will feel a whole lot healthier after Sunday; the other will face another week's worth of soul-searching.
• NFC East lead up for grabs
While the Ravens-Texans battle could play a key role in playoff seeding down the road, what is arguably Sunday's biggest game takes place at the Meadowlands. There, the 4-2 Giants welcome the upstart 3-3 Redskins, with the winner making a huge statement in the division race.
Chalk this up as the biggest game of Robert Griffin III's young career, too -- he and his teammates have yet to play an NFC East foe in 2012; they'll finish the year with six of their last 10 games coming within the division.
• Is the race to the No. 1 pick on already?
We're still a long ways from the 2013 NFL Draft, but a few teams have drifted toward the bottom of the league -- meaning that they could very well be in the mix for the top selection.
To that end, Sunday's Jaguars-Raiders game in Oakland could sort things out a bit. Neither of those teams seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough and late playoff push. Same goes for the 1-5 Browns, though they broke through with a win last week and have played better football of late. They're visiting 2-3 Indianapolis on Sunday. The Chiefs (1-5), Panthers (1-4) and Saints (1-4) also find themselves down in the dumps right now.
And speaking of the Saints ...
• The second-best team in the NFC South is ...?
Atlanta hit its Week 7 bye as the only undefeated team left in the NFL. The Falcons also could be looking at a very early clinch of the division title, with Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay a combined 4-11 through six weeks.
The Saints, fresh off a bye, visit Tampa Bay on Sunday. Everyone keeps waiting for the Saints to flip the switch and throw themselves back in the playoff race, but it's the 2-3 Buccaneers with a shot to get back to .500 Sunday. Meanwhile, the Panthers will try to right their ship at home, but the visiting Cowboys are just as desperate for a victory -- Dallas has lost two straight to fall to 2-3.
• Figuring out the NFC's real sleeper team
Seattle's Cinderella run took a hit with a Thursday night loss in San Francisco, and we've already covered the work Washington has to do Sunday. So, that brings us to an intriguing Week 7 matchup: Arizona at Minnesota.
Based on their schedules alone, the Vikings might have a better chance to hang in the race. They play three of their next four at home (before a tough closing stretch rife with road games). The Cardinals, meanwhile, are on the road five times in their next seven games, and still host San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit.
Needless to say, Sunday's winner in Minnesota will get a much-needed boost.
• Are the Packers ready to roll?
Green Bay took Houston out behind the woodshed in Week 6, and Aaron Rodgers took the opportunity to silence his team's critics. Was it a one-week mirage of Packers' dominance or are the defending NFC North champs back to their old ways?
We'll be able to answer that a lot more assertively come Sunday, after Green Bay visits St. Louis. The Rams have battled their way to a 3-3 record (same as Green Bay), thanks to a perfect 3-0 mark at home. They have allowed just 16 points total in their prior to home games. If the St. Louis defense can slow Green Bay, too, it could knock the Packers back down a peg.
• Sorting out the AFC East
Just as no one predicted, every single team in the AFC East is tied at 3-3 after six weeks. Miami has the weekend off, but the Bills have a great shot to move to 4-3, at home against Tennessee.
And, of course, the Jets and Patriots are prepared to throw down in Foxboro. The Patriots are still the odds-on favorite to break free in the AFC East, eventually -- but that expectation dwindles with each passing week. The Jets could flip the script totally with a road win Sunday.
As covered way back at the start of this breakdown, the door could come open ever so slightly in the AFC North should the banged-up Ravens fall in Houston. Is any other team in the division capable of taking advantage?
Pittsburgh is struggling, sitting at 2-3 and fresh off a miserable road loss in Tennessee. Cincinnati is a half-game up, 3-3, but lost at home to Miami in Week 5 and then fell by 10 to previously-winless Cleveland in Week 6.
Suffice it to say, both of these teams are badly in need of a W. The winner of Sunday night's Steelers-Bengals showdown in Cincinnati will sit alone in second place in the division -- possibly within one loss of Baltimore, should the Ravens go down Sunday.
• Closing things out in Chicago
A storied Black and Blue Division rivalry takes the spotlight on Monday night, with Detroit heading to Chicago. Which team needs a victory more?
Well, the easy argument is for Detroit. Even with a dramatic come-from-behind victory in Philadelphia last week, the Lions continue to pay for their sluggish start to the season with a 2-3 overall record. Losing Monday night would push them to 2-4 and three full games back in the NFC North. But Chicago would prefer to keep its foot on the pedal. At 4-1, the Bears have a little clearance on the division, but with the Packers potentially ready to shift into high gear.