This is the week when separation and reality set in. Several teams will go from being on the brink of something special -- or catastrophic -- to knowing exactly what they are. Some will rise and start planning for the playoffs. Some will start counting the days to the NFL draft.
Among the NFL's Week 10 storylines are answers to questions like, are the Pats frauds or for real? Can Jason Garrett do more than keep a tidy locker-room? Which Ryan (Rex or Rob) will win? And if the NFC West falls any further into oblivion ... will it make a noise?
But we'll start in South Florida, where literally and figuratively Randy Moss could be just a few steps or missteps away from the beach. Titans-Dolphins offers a wealth of twists, including:
Moss, of course, will garner the most attention on and off the field. If his latest costume-switch into Titans gear does not work out, he'll be "on the beach" like so many other waived and cut players in no time. If the ideal scenario plays out, and Moss stretches defenses, helps Chris Johnson and makes either Kerry Collins or Vince Young look like a superstar, the Titans may well be in Super Bowl contention. Seriously, the good Moss can do that much for a team already with a Super Bowl-caliber defense and rushing attack.
Can newly acquired Al Harris bring life to the Dolphins' defense and a win at home? Harris, cut by Green Bay, isn't the same Pro Bowl player he once was. In fact, he's an aging player with diminishing skills coming off knee surgery. But Harris doesn't need to be the same old Harris. He needs to mentor a young secondary, teach them how to be true professionals, help in spots and show the way for a good secondary on a good defense that needs to create more turnovers.
Which quarterback will show the way for their respective teams -- Vince Young, Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, or none of the above? All indications are that Collins will start in place of the injured VY, who Titans coach Jeff Fisher said will be a game-time decision. But at Friday's crucial practice, it was Collins who took the majority of the snaps with the first-team and put in extra time with Moss after practice, as well. On the other side of the field, Henne was benched in favor of Chad Pennington, as the 4-4 Dolphins look for some kind of spark to move up the AFC South standings.
No game epitomizes the make-or-break aspect of this week -- across the league -- more than this one. For the Dolphins, receiver Brandon Marshall guaranteed the Dolphins would make the playoffs this week. He can go a long way toward backing up the talk, considering it's the offense that has not been playoff-caliber. If the Dolphins drop to 4-5, put a bow on this season and start counting the ways they'll have to improve next.
As for the Titans, it's all there in front of them. So, too, is a potential implosion. If the Moss experiment works, not only will it lessen the sting of losing Kenny Britt, but also it will make running back Chris Johnson doubly dangerous. The Titans score points, but their passing game ranks just 26th in the NFL. Young's strength is throwing the long ball, but Collins is the better passer and has been much improved this year.
Other key storylines to watch in Week 10:
2. Rex Ryan, Eric Mangini, Rob Ryan ... and don't forget to tip your waiters. The Ryan brothers traded friendly barbs so often this week, Rex resorted to becoming a prop comic. Carrot Top Ryan even donned a wig and put a pillow under a Browns sweatshirt to mock his brother. Mangini got into the act, comparing Rex Ryan to a Macy's Parade float and everyone had a hearty laugh. Rest assured, though, this will be an intensely fought game with much on the line, especially for the Jets. There's no team Mangini would rather beat than the Jets. And for New York, the division race will be a close one all year. You simply cannot lose to 3-5 teams. Slip here and if the Dolphins get hot, the Jets could be left on the outside looking in.
3. Is Mike Shanahan physically fit enough to make a decision at quarterback? When we last saw Shanahan, he was booting questions like an aging semi-pro league shortstop. Was Donovan McNabb not physically fit enough to run the two-minute drill in a costly loss to Detroit? Or was he not smart enough to run the two-minute drill, to paraphrase Shanahan. One thing's certain about McNabb, however. He's got a chance to beat his former team for the second time and put the Redskins square back in the middle of the NFC East race.
4. Wade Phillips has gone fishin' ... could his successor be soon, too? In his first week as Cowboys coach, Jason Garrett has shaken things up cosmetically. He started practices earlier, even going full-pads on his first day. He made players sprint from drill-to-drill. He talked about changing the culture. He even made players keep a tidier locker-room. But for Garrett to have any chance of actually becoming the permanent head coach, his team has to go on a huge run. Opening against the Giants with a backup quarterback and players who surely have checked out or will be checking out soon is no way to build a win streak.
5. Which of the following statements is true: Brett Favre is gonna call it quits and this time he really means it. Or: The Bears are still in playoff contention. Remarkably, both statements could be true and Sunday's affair at Soldier Field could go a long way toward making either or both happen. The 5-3 Bears, despite stumbling all over themselves at home and seemingly on a mission to maim Jay Cutler, have a real shot to make a move. Standing in their way is a Vikings team yet to win on the road, but more confident after pulling off a dramatic win against the Cardinals. If Favre somehow gets on a roll the rest of the way, is his career really going to be over?
6. All you need to know about the NFC West is the 49ers have a chance to leap back into contention ... uh, at 3-6. The team that's winless on the road -- you know, the one with a rookie quarterback -- the Rams, travels to San Francisco. The Rams are winless on the road. Meanwhile, the Seahawks, who are almost as inept on the road and coming off a 41-7 drubbing by the Giants, go to the 3-5 Cardinals. Unless the Rams or Seahawks can establish themselves as legitimate players, it's highly likely that nine games into the season, three teams with 4-5 records could be tied for first-place in the division, with the 3-6 Niners and their likely lame-duck coach nipping at their heels.
7. It's a Gallows kind of matter of pride in Detroit ... will it still be one after 2010? The Lions were the only team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16 in 2008. They're much improved and probably even better than their 2-6 record. But here come the 0-8 Bills, halfway to matching the kings of bumble. Clearly, the Bills are better than their record, after losing their last three games by a combined nine points. But it is what it is. Can the Bills break through against the Lions? And in a weird way, would that lessen the sting of losing for Detroit fans?
8. Eventually, the Colts will start getting players back. But will it eventually be too late? Last week's loss to the Eagles was more than just a fluke. Eventually, all the injuries and losses the Colts have suffered this year had to catch up to the club -- and it did. The bad news is the list just keeps getting longer: Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Addai, Mike Hart, Clint Session, Austin Collie, Bob Sanders, Melvin Bullitt. And the 2-6 Bengals have enough talent to hand the Colts a potentially crippling loss.
9. It's mid-November already? Doesn't that mean it's time for our annual declaration the Texans finally will get to the playoffs ... NEXT YEAR? Here comes a division game for the 4-4 Texans against the 4-4 Jaguars. It should be a hard-hitting and entertaining match. It always is. But while the Jags are overachieving and could afford a loss, the Texans, yet again, are on the brink of breaking five million Houston hearts. Pro Bowl players dot the roster, but in nine years, it has yet to fully come together. This is not close to a marquee game, but for coach Gary Kubiak, it's a huge referendum on his job.
10. Are the Patriots frauds? Perhaps fraud is a bit strong, but throughout the first half of the season, Pats fans and critics wondered if Bill Belichick's team was as good as their record. And then Colt McCoy and the Browns dealt an old-fashioned whuppin.' Now the Pats must head to Heinz Field. As much as the Patriots' defense has been rightfully questioned, Tom Brady and the offense might be scoring points (second in the league at 27.4), but hasn't exactly gobbled up the yardage. Still, homefield through the playoffs is potentially in the mix for whichever team wins.