Aaron Rodgers and the Packers could take control in the NFC North with a Monday night win over the Bears. (Morry Gash/AP)
Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for the weekend with The Playbook, a detailed weekly preview that gives you everything you need to know about the upcoming slate of games.
Chicago (4-3) at Green Bay (5-2) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: How much introduction does this game really need? Everyone's aware of the storied history in arguably the NFL's greatest rivalry -- counting the postseason, the Bears and Packers have met 188 times, with the Bears sporting a 92-88-6 edge.
It's a "Throw out the records" sort of rivalry ... or, at least, the Bears hope it is this season. Chicago (4-3) enters the Monday night clash a game back of Green Bay (5-2) in the NFC North, but the Bears again will be without starting QB Jay Cutler, as he continues to nurse a groin injury. Veteran backup Josh McCown filled in admirably during a loss at Washington two weeks ago, throwing for 204 yards and a TD in relief of Cutler.
That result, though, also served as the latest reminder that Chicago's defense is hardly the fear-inducing unit of years past. The Redskins hung 45 on the Bears that afternoon, the fourth time a team scored 30 or more points (and second time over 40) against Chicago in seven games this season.
The Packers offense is not quite what a struggling defense wants to see. Through all its injuries at receiver and tight end, Green Bay has continued to light up the scoreboard behind an increasingly MVP-worthy effort from QB Aaron Rodgers. He ripped the Vikings defense his last time out and has gone 75 pass attempts -- two-plus games -- without an interception.
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Chicago must slow a stout Green Bay run game, as well. Led by rookie Eddie Lacy, the Packers have hit the century mark on the ground in six straight games, including a 182-yard effort at Minnesota.
The best hope for the visiting Bears may be to grind out a victory on the legs of Matt Forte, who has 533 yards rushing of his own. He'll need to do better than the 60 yards gained against Green Bay by Adrian Peterson, whose efforts were stunted by shoddy work at QB and questionable play calling.
The Packers have taken their last six games against the Bears, including a playoff win in January 2011. If they push that streak to seven, Chicago will have a long way back into the NFC North race. -- Chris Burke
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New Orleans (6-1) at NY Jets (4-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: This matchup looks a lot better for New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan than it does for twin brother Rex, the Jets' head coach. While the Saints' new multiple and diverse defense has all it takes to confuse rookie quarterback Geno Smith into making counterproductive reads and throws, the Jets secondary -- fresh off its embarrassment at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals' passing offense last Sunday -- seem singularly ill-equipped to deal with the kind of firepower Drew Brees can dispense.
Rex Ryan said that the Bengals loss was so bad, he told his players to skip watching the tape and just move on to the next opponent. However, what the Saints do is nightmare fuel for any struggling defense -- vertical concepts, dizzying receiver distribution and all sorts of routes and formations.
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"It's a team that really pushes the ball vertically on you probably more so than anybody," Rex said of the Saints this week. "Quite honestly, they're going to watch that tape from what happened last week, [and] I wouldn't be surprised if Drew Brees and Co. aren't on the flight here early to make sure they got here. We have to play a heck of a lot better and we will."
The Jets are the fifth team since the NFL started the 16-game schedule in 1978 to alternate wins and losses in their first four games, which means that their 4-4 record is less a tribute to stability and more an indication of wild variance.
The Saints, meanwhile, are one Tom Brady touchdown pass away from an undefeated record. No surprise that their offense is explosive, but the real improvement has been on defense. Rob Ryan took over a Steve Spagnuolo-led bunch that set league records for futility, and has it playing at a Super Bowl level. Only the Patriots have scored more than 18 points on New Orleans, and Cameron Jordan must be mentioned along with J.J. Watt and the Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson as the best 3-4 ends in the game. The Jets are still trying to figure out their offensive M.O., and Smith has been frustratingly game-to-game. All signs point to Rob having bragging rights at the Ryan family holiday table after this one. -- Doug Farrar
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Pittsburgh (2-5) at New England (6-2) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Though the Patriots and Steelers have not met in the postseason since the 2004 season's AFC title game, they have developed this matchup into one of the NFL's must-see rivalries. That is, at least, in a normal year.
This season has hardly been normal. And that is doubly true for the Steelers, who followed up another offseason of salary cap misery with a 2-5 start. They reside in fourth place in the AFC North, and it would be difficult to argue they don't belong there. (Oh, and they were lapped in their own city by the Pirates.)
Tom Brady's Patriots offense, outside of a Week 2 win over the Jets and a rainy Week 5 loss in Cincinnati, has found ways to put up points -- New England is averaging 28 points per game over the past three weeks. Rob Gronkowski's long-awaited return has upped the ante for that unit, too. Though he had just two receptions last week, Brady targeted him a whopping 17 times in the Patriots' previous outing.
For all its troubles elsewhere, Pittsburgh is second against the pass in the NFL, so Brady and his possibly injured throwing hand face another tough assignment.
Of course, it may not take all that many points to take down the Steelers, who have topped the 20-point mark just twice in seven games. They shot themselves in the foot again last weekend in Oakland, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a pair of interceptions in Raiders territory and kicker Shaun Suisham shanking two short field goals.
Roethlisberger dubbed this weekend's trip to Foxboro a "must-win" for his struggling team. He may be right, as a loss could drop the Steelers three games back of an AFC wild-card spot, with a tricky second half ahead.
The stakes are lower for New England, which has opened a two-game lead in the AFC East. Yet, with their bye week forthcoming in Week 10, the Patriots would love to tack on win No. 7, both to maintain their cushion on the second-place Jets and to try to keep pace with Cincinnati, Indianapolis and the other teams fighting for a bye in the playoffs. (The AFC West champ, be it Kansas City or Denver, probably will be in line for one of those two coveted spots.)
Pittsburgh's last trip to New England came back in 2008: a 33-10 win over the Brady-less Pats. A repeat of that dominant showing is unlikely, though little about this season has gone to script so far. -- CB
Indianapolis (5-2) at Houston (2-5) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Before the season started, this game was expected to help decide the pecking order in the AFC South. But the Texans have all but fallen apart, especially on offense, and their 2-5 record can only be seen as a severe disappointment. For the second straight game and with a bye week to consider it, head coach Gary Kubiak will start second-year undrafted free-agent quarterback Case Keenum over incumbent Matt Schaub. Kubiak made it clear this week that the decision had nothing to do with Schaub's injured ankle.
"Matt’s fine and it’s just the decision I made based on what I saw take place last week with Case and him taking advantage of an opportunity and I want to see him move forward," Kubiak said on Monday after reviewing Keenum's surprising performance against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Colts have a clear division lead at 5-2, but their future became far more murky when Reggie Wayne tore his right ACL against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 20. Wayne has been Andrew Luck's primary target by far through Luck's first two seasons, and though Indianapolis' defense has been a pleasant surprise, it's tough to know what the offense will look like with a group of young but inconsistent receivers, a struggling running game and an offensive line that does not inspire hope. Head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson decided to stick with the players they had, as opposed to scanning the wires and seeing who might replace Wayne from outside.
"You're going to exhaust all resources, turn all stones and see if there's somebody, but again, you got to bring somebody in a short period of time and teach them the terminology and the system and all that stuff," Pagano said this week.
"These guys are more than capable. They've been here. We know what they are. They know our system. That's why we decided just to stand pat."
That decision will define the Colts' season, for better or worse. Houston's season is basically decided, but the Colts have a lot to play for here, and with a looking glass that is less than clear. -- DF
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Baltimore (3-4) at Cleveland (3-5) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The Browns are in must-win mode -- a loss not only would drop them to 3-6, but also would put them at 0-2 against the Ravens. The situation is not much rosier for the defending champs. Baltimore (3-4) has a Week 10 showdown with Cincinnati looming, so a 2-0 stretch starting Sunday is imperative. Coming off a bye, can the Ravens finally kick start Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce? -- CB
San Diego (4-3) at Washington (2-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Chargers are merrily rolling along right now, but the Redskins are in a bit of trouble. Robert Griffin's receivers are taking shots at him and bickering with each other, and tight end Fred Davis -- who Washington tried to trade before the deadline -- recently admitted to napping in team meetings. At this rate (and with a 2-5 record), the team's name should be the least of its concerns -- DF
Minnesota (1-6) at Dallas (4-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The 1-6 Vikings reportedly dangled veteran DE Jared Allen at the trade deadline, an admittance that this season has gone to the dogs. Head coach Leslie Frazier has yet to even name a starting quarterback for this game, after Christian Ponder flopped again in Week 8. NFC East-leading Dallas could use a cupcake game, after a heartbreaking loss to the Lions last Sunday. RB DeMarco Murray is expected to be back in the starting lineup, which certainly should help. -- CB
Tennessee (3-4) at St. Louis (3-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Titans expect to have a healthy Jake Locker at quarterback for the first time since Week 4, but Locker may have wished he waited an extra week when all is said and done. The Rams offense isn't much to crow about, but the pass rush -- led by NFC sack leader Robert Quinn -- is one of the NFL's most effective. -- DF
Atlanta (2-5) at Carolina (4-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Rare have been the meetings between these NFC South foes when the Panthers looked like the stronger team. (The last time Carolina finished a season with a better record than Atlanta was 2008.) Atlanta's 22nd-ranked defense will have its hands full with a surging Cam Newton, but it's the Falcons' depleted offense that really may run into trouble -- Carolina sits No. 2 in the league in points allowed and No. 3 in yards. -- CB
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Only For The Faithful
Kansas City (8-0) at Buffalo Bills (3-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Quarterback Thad Lewis should be able to go for this game despite rib soreness, and the Bills faithful had better hope so. Putting Jeff Tuel or Matt Flynn up against Kansas City's defense constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. -- DF
Tampa Bay (0-8) at Seattle (7-1) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: Records-wise, the worst team in the NFC playing at the best team in the NFC. What could go wrong? The 7-1 Seahawks have not lost at home since dropping a 19-17 decision to San Francisco on Christmas Eve, 2011. -- CB
Philadelphia (3-5) at Oakland (3-4) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The good news for Chip Kelly is that he'll have Nick Foles back under center this Sunday. The bad news is that one of the guys he tried to recruit to Oregon -- Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor -- is one of the league's most dynamic weapons, and should run wild on Philly's defense. -- DF
(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus.)
• If you've been watching Seattle's offensive line and assuming that Russell Wilson has no time to throw, the stats back up your take. Wilson has been pressured on an astonishing 46.7 percent of his dropbacks this season, the highest percentage for any qualifying quarterback since 2008, which is as far as PFF's pressure metrics go back. Amazingly enough, Wilson's been pretty efficient under the gun -- 33 completions in 76 attempts with seven touchdowns and four interceptions -- but one wonders just how far the Seahawks will go if they can't protect their most important player.
• There's not much to point out when watching the Jacksonville Jaguars these days, but running back Maurice Jones-Drew is still blocking like a champ, as he always has. He's been involved in 193 passing plays this season, with 62 pass-blocking snaps, and he hasn't allowed a single pressure all season -- no sacks, no hits, no hurries.
• Is it time to give Denver Broncos guard Louis Vasquez a name-check? It is, indeed. The former San Diego Charger was signed to a four-year, $23.5 million contract by Denver in the offseason and has been earning that cash. In 295 pass-blocking snaps this season, he's allowed no sacks, no hits and just four quarterback hurries.
• We mentioned earlier that St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn leads the NFC with 10 sacks, but there's been no more impactful defender in the entire NFL when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks. He's also got 13 quarterback hits and 21 hurries -- 44 total pressures in 220 pass-rushing snaps.
• Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee won the NFC Defensive Player of the Month award for his excellent play in October, and that's well-deserved. But when looking at inside linebackers in coverage around the league, it's tough to find a guy with more impressive numbers than Buffalo Bills rookie Kiko Alonso. Like Lee, Alonso has four picks this season, and he also totaled 49 tackles in October, most among all rookies. He's allowed 0.49 yards per coverage snap to Lee's 0.99. Alonso is well on his way to making a Luke Kuechly-like impact in Buffalo's defense. Could he be the next Lee? -- DF
• Matchup to Watch: Antonio Allen vs. Jimmy Graham.
Hard to say exactly how the Jets will line up against Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints this weekend -- odds are, Rex Ryan will mix and match as the game goes along. One thing is for sure, though: New York's pass D must be significantly stingier than it was in allowing 325 yards and five touchdowns to Andy Dalton last week.
Though Brees utilizes every pass-catcher available to him, Graham remains one of the most dangerous offensive players in football. Even at far less than 100 percent, he hauled in two TD passes last week, and the Saints might opt to save him for red-zone opportunities again.
Allen drew the task of covering Rob Gronkowski during New York's win over New England a couple weeks back. Gronkowski caught just 5-of-13 passes thrown his direction while the second-year safety was on him, according to Pro Football Focus. The Jets may choose to go the Allen route again, thus leaving Antonio Cromartie, a scuffling Dee Milliner and Kyle Wilson to focus their attention on the remaining Saints receivers.
• This Week's Sleeper: LaVon Brazill, WR, Colts.
Hey, someone's gotta help pick up the slack caused by Reggie Wayne's season-ending injury. The Colts will use T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and TE Coby Fleener plenty, but that still will leave some Andrew Luck passes up for grabs.
Enter Brazill, who has yet to record a reception this season -- in large part due to a suspension. He averaged 16.9 yards on his 11 grabs last season; he might be able to find some space, with defenses focusing on Indianapolis' more high-profile options.
• Pressue's On ...: Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia.
The Eagles' offense has been wretched in its past two outings, mustering all of three points against the Cowboys and Giants. (Philadelphia scored its only TD of Weeks 7 and 8 on special teams.) Foles was wholly responsible for the former effort, throwing for just 80 before an injury drove him from Philadelphia's loss to Dallas.
He'll get a shot at redemption Sunday in Oakland versus a middle-of-the-road pass defense. Another disappointing performance could send the Eagles to their third straight loss and a 3-6 record.
• Rookie Spotlight: Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina.
Though the 15 sacks Matt Ryan has taken this year are far from a league-worst number, Atlanta's offensive line has been problematic -- especially on the ground, where the Falcons' 437 yards rushing is worst in the league by a decent margin. Lotulelei has been a steady force up front for the Panthers this season, and he should see around his usual workload (38-40 snaps) this Sunday. If the Falcons cannot move him from his spot, running between the tackles will be a lost cause.
• Tennessee: Once 3-1, the Titans have slipped out of the AFC playoff picture with three straight losses. Falling in St. Louis Sunday might be the first nail in their coffin, even as a matchup against the Jaguars awaits in Week 10. -- CB
• Green Bay
. The Packers welcome the Chicago Bears to Lambeau Field on Monday night, and with Detroit on a bye this week, it's a great opportunity for Aaron Rodgers and friends to get some separation in a very contentious NFC North. If the Bears win, there will be three teams with 5-3 records in the division. -- DF