Dez Bryant (left) and the Cowboys are hoping to extend their lead in the NFC East with a win over the Saints on Sunday. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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.
Dallas (5-4) at New Orleans (6-2) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: One of the interesting sub-stories in this game surrounds comments from Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett regarding the job done by former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who Jerry Jones fired in January after two seasons because he thought Ryan's defenses contained too many moving parts. Ryan put up a league-average defense in 2012 despite injuries to several Cowboys starters, and he's completely turned the Saints defense around in his first year in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Dallas D led by Monte Kiffin is ... not so good. The Cowboys have allowed more than 400 yards passing in four different games this season, already an NFL record with the season halfway over.
"Rob is a fantastic coach," Garrett said on Wednesday. "There’s no question about that. He’s a great guy and did a lot for our organization in the two years that he was here. Defensively we played very well, particularly last year, for most of the year. Probably through Week 10, we were one of the best defenses in the league. We really just got decimated by injuries, and I thought Rob did a good job of keeping everybody together and working through the different players that were in for us. I think he’s a fantastic coach. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he’s having the success he’s having down there [in New Orleans].”
MORE COVERAGE: Midseason grades | Midseason Report | MMQB’s All-Pro team, awards
Ryan goes from losing to brother Rex Ryan's New York Jets last Sunday to possibly avenging his recent termination. As for New Orleans' offense, it was thought Drew Brees would pick apart New York's suspect secondary, but the Jets countered with consistent pressure up front, forcing Brees to alter his reads and throw before he wanted to. The Cowboys are hoping for the return of DeMarcus Ware, who has missed the last three weeks with a quadriceps injury. George Selvie has performed well in the meantime, and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is having yet another outstanding season. The Saints' offensive line needs a big reset to avoid a third loss in four games after a 5-0 start.
Dallas' offense is always a mixed bag, full of protection issues and inconsistent production, but Tony Romo certainly looked in charge of things during his game-winning drive against the Vikings on Sunday. Whether he can do the same against Ryan's petri-dish defensive schemes is another matter. -- Doug Farrar
Detroit (5-3) at Chicago (5-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: "The race is on," Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh declared this week. Is it ever.
The Bears walked out of Lambeau Field with a win Monday -- taking out Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers in the process -- and thus creating a three-way tie atop the division. Backing that road victory with a home triumph over Detroit might put Chicago in the driver's seat for the division crown.
Of course, the Lions may have something to say about that. They should be rested up after their bye, which gave them a few extra days to revel in their dramatic Week 8 victory over Dallas. The Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson connection was unstoppable in that one, as the duo combined for 329 yards through the air. Johnson has had far less success against the Bears, topping 100 yards in just two of the teams' prior 12 meetings. (Megatron had four grabs for 44 yards and a touchdown in Detroit's 40-32 win over Chicago earlier this season.)
Jay Cutler, on the flip side, has been particularly sharp against the Lions during his career. The Bears announced Thursday that Cutler will be back on the field and starting Sunday after missing a game-plus with a groin injury. Cutler is 7-2 against Detroit as Chicago's QB and 4-0 against the Lions at Soldier Field.
Reggie Bush was the X-factor in Detroit's Week 3 win over the Bears. He racked up 139 yards and a TD on the ground, constantly outracing Chicago's D. The Bears will have to be better against him Sunday, and better than they were against Green Bay's Eddie Lacy and James Starks (190 yards, two touchdowns combined Monday).
Because of that earlier Detroit victory over Chicago, Sunday's game may be of more importance to the Bears. Another Lions win and Chicago would be a game back in the division and have no chance at claiming the head-to-head tiebreaker with Detroit. -- Chris Burke
[si_video id="video_261484E9-60C1-A4D0-E309-3312113F6827" height="470"]
Denver (7-1) at San Diego (4-4) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: This is Denver's first game since head coach John Fox's heart surgery, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will act as interim head coach. There shouldn't be too many adjustments -- everyone knows Peyton Manning has the offense on lock, and Del Rio will have help with in-game adjustments from a highly competent coaching staff.
Denver's main concern here is how it will deal with a Chargers offense that is very, very different than in years past. Former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have done a masterful job retooling the team's offensive concepts to Philip Rivers' benefit. Under Norv Turner, Rivers frequently had to wait for receivers to get open on longer routes behind patchwork offensive lines, testing mobility he did not have. But McCoy and Whisenhunt have taken Rivers into the 21st century, using a compelling combination of route mixtures in the short and intermediate game. As a result, Rivers is enjoying his best season in several years -- he currently ranks behind only Manning in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics.
“Less shots down the field and more efficient passing," Del Rio said this week about the Chargers' new approach. "His numbers represent that, I think he’s 106-107 in passer rating [106.5, actually]. His completion percentage, I think, leads the league right now [72.2 percent, with Manning second at 71.1 percent]. So he’s getting the ball out of his hands and not taking a lot of sacks. Before they were kind of a chunk offense that would look for chunks, and they might take a sack here and there but they were going to throw the ball deep a lot during the game. It’s a little different approach.”
So, the Broncos have that to deal with. The Chargers, however, must pit their league-worst defense against a Broncos offense that is averaging 42.9 points per game. Coming off an overtime loss to the Washington Redskins last week, this is a bad setup for San Diego. Safety Eric Weddle put it best:
"If we don't come out ready to rock and roll on Sunday, we're going to get blasted."
Yes, indeed. -- DF
FARRAR: Richardson, Weeden headline All-Disappointment team
Carolina (5-3) at San Francisco (6-2) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: How impressive have the Panthers been in running off four straight wins to get to 5-3? Well, this game is arguably the most highly-anticipated of Week 10.
The competition level has not been exactly through the roof during Carolina's run -- Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta have six wins combined between them. But the Panthers have done what good teams are supposed to do by beating up on those lesser foes. The four victories have come by an average of 20.5 points, elevating the Panthers to the best point differential (+98) in the entire NFC.
They were off last week, but the 49ers head into Sunday even hotter than Carolina. After a sluggish 1-2 start to 2013, San Francisco has rolled to five straight wins, with its closest margin of victory at 12.
Will offense or defense have the edge Sunday? Both Carolina and San Francisco have topped 30 points in every game of their current runs; each team also features a top-five defense -- Carolina at No. 2, San Francisco at No. 4. Something's gotta give somewhere when Cam Newton and Co. crash Candlestick.
This is a measuring-stick sort of game for the Panthers. They missed a shot to open the season with a bang, letting a 12-7 decision slip away against Seattle in Week 1. Since then, they've rallied into playoff contention but have faced the easiest schedule in football. With New England, Miami, the Jets and two games against New Orleans still to come, an upset of the 49ers would sound the alarm for the rest of Carolina's foes.
Sunday's outcome may boil down to which front seven can keep the opposing quarterback contained. Led by rising star linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina has dominated up front, allowing a mere 79.1 yards rushing per game. San Francisco has had more trouble stopping the run (12th in the league compared to Carolina's No. 2 ranking) and less success getting to the QB (17 sacks to Carolina's 23).
If the 49ers defense cannot crank up the pressure a notch or two, stuffing Newton may be next to impossible. So, the onus may fall back on Kaepernick and the surging San Francisco offense to match the Panthers. -- CB
[si_video id="video_E3652CB0-8CA6-5192-F365-342388DCB01E" height="470"]
Cincinnati (6-3) at Baltimore (3-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bengals must get their front four together without super-tackle Geno Atkins, and that could be a problem. Veteran Domata Peko has looked tentative at the line this season. Could this be the week for Ray Rice to bust out? Something had better kick in because Rice has looked all too mortal this season, especially in his 11-carry, 17-yard performance against the Browns on Sunday. -- DF
Philadelphia (4-5) at Green Bay (5-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: A game that set up as Michael Vick versus Aaron Rodgers preseason now will feature Nick Foles versus Seneca Wallace. That's a swap that could play to Philadelphia's advantage on both accounts. The drop from Rodgers to Wallace certainly looms as a massive one for the Packers, even with their steady run game. Foles is coming off a record-tying seven-touchdown performance and matches wits with a Packers D that had trouble getting off the field Monday. -- CB
BURKE: Second-half storylines to watch: Newton's rise and more
Seattle (8-1) at Atlanta (2-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Seattle will look to avenge its divisional round playoff loss from last season, when it spotted the Falcons a 20-point halftime lead and almost came back to win it. Last Sunday, the Seahawks engineered a furious comeback against the Buccaneers, so they're certainly capable. Job one will be improving their run fronts, because that Falcons loss exposed vulnerabilities that are still evident in an otherwise strong defense. -- DF
St. Louis (3-6) at Indianapolis (6-2) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Colts have an all-important trip to Tennessee looming next Thursday, so keeping the eye on the ball here will be paramount. Fortunately for them, the Sam Bradford-less Rams might not be able to put up all that much resistance. This could be an opportunity for the Colts to finally get Trent Richardson rolling a bit -- the Rams are 28th against the run and were gashed by the Titans last week. -- CB
Houston (2-6) at Arizona (4-4) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: An interesting matchup between two underrated entities here -- Houston quarterback Case Keenum has proven to be a complete player, while the Cardinals' defense has been excellent from front to back. The difference here could be Arizona running back Andre Ellington (more about him in Smarter Stats), the only real cog in the Cardinals offense besides Larry Fitzgerald at this point. -- DF
[si_video id="video_F3B41643-806C-7EF8-4449-33D6AF46238C" height="470"]
Only For The Faithful
Miami (4-4) at Tampa Bay (0-8) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Which Florida team is in more turmoil right now: The 0-8 Bucs, with their embattled coach? Or the Dolphins, who spent the week bombarded with questions about their locker room dynamic? Hardly the most appetizing Monday nighter, but the 4-4 Dolphins are still in the playoff chase. -- CB
Oakland (3-5) at NY Giants (2-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Fresh off allowing Nick Foles to throw seven touchdowns against their defense, the Raiders travel to face Eli Manning. That begs the question: Is it possible for a team to unlock the seven-pick achievement one week after such indignities? The odds seem reasonable in this case. -- DF
Jacksonville (0-8) at Tennessee (4-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: For a team smack-dab in the playoff chase like Tennessee, seeing the Jaguars on the schedule ought to be a relief. The Titans snapped a three-game skid last week in St. Louis, on the strength of 198 yards and four TDs rushing (two of the latter by Chris Johnson). -- CB
Buffalo (3-6) at Pittsburgh (2-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel has been out with a sprained LCL since Oct. 3, but he should be ready to return against a Steelers defense that continues to get atypically torched in coverage. Fantasy players with Stevie Johnson on your rosters, act accordingly. -- DF
(Unless otherwise indicated, all metrics come from our friends at Pro Football Focus).
• Speaking of Philip Rivers' 2013 turnaround, he now leads the league on PFF's Accuracy Percentage metric, which accounts for dropped passes, throwaways and other rogue elements. When Rivers is tasked with completing a pass and nothing gets in his way, he's making it work 81.3 percent of the time.
• Houston quarterback Case Keenum may not look like a deep passer, but so far so good for the Texans. In his two starts, Keenum has attempted 12 passes of 20 yards or more (20.3 percent of his total passes), and completed seven for 270 yards and three touchdowns. Keenum is clearly better than Matt Schaub at staying in the pocket and making shot plays.
• Arizona Cardinals rookie running back Andre Ellington has impressed in limited duty, and elusiveness is a primary reason. In just 43 carries this season, the Clemson alum has caused eight missed tackles, forcing five more on his 22 receptions. You can expect to see a lot more of Ellington on the field at that rate.
• Continuing our Torrey Smith Watch from earlier this season: Baltimore's primary deep receiver has 65 targets and 36 receptions this season; 24 of those targets and seven of those receptions have been over 20 yards, and Smith still doesn't have a single drop all year. This is one case where a guy's 53 percent catch rate isn't quite his fault.
• Lost in the mess that is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the season defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is having, especially in pass pressure. McCoy has just two sacks on the season, but he's put up nine QB hits and 24 hurries, tying him with Dallas' Jason Hatcher for second in the league (35) in total pressures among defensive tackles, behind Ndamukong Suh's 40.
• The Arizona Cardinals have the league's best defense per Football Outsiders' metrics, and one reason for this is the run-stopping abilities of the team's back-seven defenders. Inside linebacker Jasper Brinkley leads the NFL with a run-stop rate of 21.3 percent (16 stops on 75 run snaps), and rookie cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has seven run stops on 159 run snaps. A solid last line of defense is an underrated asset, and Todd Bowles' defense certainly has it. -- DF
[si_video id="video_585E79BF-C967-7389-F428-33F304B72859" height="470"]
• Matchup to Watch: Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams versus Jordy Nelson.
If the Packers were able to pick one opponent for Seneca Wallace's first start, it probably would be Philadelphia. The Eagles have the league's worst pass defense at nearly 310 yards per game allowed.
Nelson is the Packers' No. 1 option in general, but he may be even more so with Wallace pressed into duty and the rest of the receiving corps still banged up. In Wallace's three-plus quarters of work against Chicago last week, Nelson was targeted on 8-of-19 throws. (They hit on only three of those attempts for 40 yards.)
Philadelphia has not shown much ability to limit anyone this season, but if Fletcher and Williams can alternate some decent coverage on Nelson, Wallace's task will be even trickier. Simply preventing the big play might be enough of a challenge for the Eagles.
• This Week's Sleeper: Trent Richardson, RB, Colts.
On name recognition (and trade value, apparently), Richardson hardly qualifies as a sleeper. But averaging fewer than 45 yards per game and going four weeks without scoring can spur a bit of a stock drop.
Richardson may not have a better chance to rediscover some mojo than he will this week against St. Louis. The Rams brought Chris Johnson back to life last Sunday, to the tune of 150 yards and two touchdowns. Richardson, incredibly, has not topped the century mark since Week 9 last season. Could his drought come to an end this week?
• Pressure's On ...: Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens.
Baltimore is on the verge of sliding into the "Lost Cause" category. A win Sunday, against the first-place Bengals, might change the complexion entirely -- it would pull the Ravens within 1.5 games of first place, with four of their last seven games at home.
Given how putrid their run game has been, however, the Ravens' only hope may be for Flacco to somehow lock in against a Bengals' defense that's down Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. Just one of the past five quarterbacks Cincinnati has faced (Matthew Stafford) has even thrown for 200 yards. Flacco will have to fly past that number if his team is to have a chance on Sunday.
• Rookie Spotlight: Kyle Long, G, Bears.
Round 1 of the matchup between Long and Detroit's Ndamukong Suh tipped in Suh's favor -- he recorded two sacks, forced Long into a costly penalty and caused a Jay Cutler fumble that resulted in a TD. Long will have to show improvement in the rematch Sunday. -- CB
• San Diego. The Chargers have let a couple games slip away, hence their 4-4 mark. Counting this week's matchup with Denver, they still have two left with the Broncos and two with the Chiefs. Holding serve at home will be essential if they're hoping to make the playoffs. -- CB
• Denver. With two matchups against the undefeated Chiefs coming up in the next month, Denver needs to handle the surprising Chargers, who could come within striking distance of second place in the AFC West should they pull off the upset. -- DF
[si_video id="video_A2B8CF3B-FAB7-EE66-4C35-341523DB7922" height="470"]