Before we start on Sunday's games, a word about one of the true good guys in the NFL. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger will undergo chemotherapy for an undisclosed form of cancer, which makes the Nashville melodrama of the last few days seem incredibly unimportant. Best wishes to Mike and his family in these tough days ahead.
The temptation is to look at the Bears' third-ranked defense through 10 games and attribute its rise from the league's 17th-best unit in 2009 to the arrival of Julius Peppers. And Peppers has played a large role, occupying blockers against the run and providing decent pass-rush pressure.
But what's forgotten is that Brian Urlacher missed all but the first half of the first game of 2009, so he's a new addition, too. And it's the combination of the two players -- Peppers' aggressiveness playing the run, Urlacher's sideline-to-sideline playmaking -- that has keyed Chicago's rise in the playoff race. The Bears lead the NFC Central with a 7-3 record, and though some brilliant media people (like me) still rank the Packers ahead of them, the Bears still have the tiebreaker edge over Green Bay by virtue of a head-to-head win in week three and a 3-0 division record.
"We've actually added two dominant players we didn't have a year ago,'' defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli told me this week. "Don't forget Brian. Julius has given us the guy who plays the run as hard as anyone you'll see, and Brian has been such a great player and leader. You forget what a playmaker he is, but he's come back and been everything he ever was.''
The Bears will need that against Philadelphia in a showdown of division leaders at Soldier Field. This isn't a one-dimensional offense the Eagles bring to town; LeSean McCoy is averaging 5.0 yards per rush and, in the great Philly tradition of Brian Westbrook, has added 51 receptions. When you're throwing five completions a game to your ace back, and making the screen game as dangerous as the deep game on some Sundays, it's a part of the game the front seven has to respect. And so Peppers' run play will be vital to get the Eagles' offense off the field, and Urlacher picking him up in the screen game will be important, too.
The Bears' approach this game much the way the Giants did last week -- which worked for 50 minutes. New York led 17-16 midway through the fourth quarter, and the Eagles were frustrated by all the different rushes the Giants gave them. Look for the same thing with Peppers, Lance Briggs and defensive end Israel Idonije Sunday. "The Giants didn't do a really good job on Mike,'' Urlacher told me. "Now, we know he's going to want to run. But the more you hit him, the less he's going to want to get out and get hit. The difference between him now and earlier in his career is he can stay in the pocket and be accurate and be more of a pocket quarterback when he wants to be. He's going to be a dangerous guy for us, but we'll be ready.''
For the second week in a row. The Eagles are playing a game you've got to watch. Lucky for 70 percent of the country, it's the Fox doubleheader game at 4:15 Eastern time.
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants.
With his ace runner fumbling and his two key receivers out with injuries, Manning's going to have to be productive without the turnovers (16 picks, one back of NFL leader Brett Favre). Tall order, especially with Jacksonville likely to try to take his only reliable wideout, Mario Manningham, away on Sunday at the Meadowlands.
Though he's kicked only nine field goals in 10 games, here's how I see Buffalo's Rian Lindell faring this weekend against the Steelers:
Israel Idonije, DE, Chicago (No. 71).
Actually, you should have known Idonije before now, but as the bookend to Julius Peppers, he's getting more chances to impact games. When Peppers and Brian Urlacher are forcing the action, guys like Idonije benefit, and he's had six sacks this year as a starting end. Against Michael Vick Sunday in Chicago, he'll be charged with making sure Vick doesn't get outside Idonije's edge, hemming him in the pocket so he'll feel the kind of pressure he felt against the Giants last week. He's a great story -- a Nigerian kid raised on the Canadian prairie and footballed at the University of Manitoba. Amazing how he's been able to make a career -- and a valuable one now with the Bears -- coming from Manitoba.
1. Vincent Jackson's re-emergence. After holding out and sitting out for the first 11 weeks of the season, the bargain-basement Pro Bowler is finally getting on the field. And not a moment too soon: With first place in the AFC West still very much in play, San Diego's playing Sunday night at Indy.
2. Leslie Frazier on the sidelines. The most-interviewed coaching candidate of the last decade (Frazier was 0-for-8, thanks in part to the Rooney Rule making teams put at least one minority candidate in front of them for each coaching vacancy) finally gets his shot to be the head man. Long, long overdue. Frazier's a good man, very much trusted by offensive and defensive players alike with the Vikings. I like his team's chances Sunday at FedEx against the 'Skins.
3. The re-evaluated Brett Favre. Don't ask me which Favre shows up Sunday in Washington, though he did tell Frazier -- the coach's words, not Favre's -- that "he's rarin' to go.'' He'll have to prove that for as long as Frazier keeps him in the starting lineup. Favre said this week: "We've got six games left. I hope to finish them all.'' We'll see if Frazier lets him.
4. Harmony on the Ravens. Derrick Mason and Joe Flacco squabbled last week on the sidelines, leading John Harbaugh to say, "There's always a fine line, focusing your passion.'' As long as the dukes don't get put up, the line hasn't been crossed. I'll be watching, but I don't think there's going to be much off the field to see when the Ravens face the Bucs.
5. LeGarrette Blount. Average Blount rushing day in the last five Bucs games: 18 carries, 82 yards. Blount's writing an amazing story after going undrafted in April and getting cut by the Titans in the summer. He'll need to be good Sunday at Baltimore for the Bucs to have a chance.
6. The efficient David Garrard tries to slay the Giants. Anyone completing 68 percent of his throws is dangerous, and so the Giants have more respect for Garrard than you'd think. With the Giants' strong rush, he won't take many chances and will throw quick.
7. Tom Coughlin's fuse with his running backs. "We're going to have Brandon [Jacobs] start this week, but there are plenty of carries to go around,'' Coughlin said this week. Ahmad Bradshaw may be averaging 106.4 yards from scrimmage in the Giants' 6-4 start, but as long as he keeps fumbling, Coughlin will look for other ways to run it.
8. The fight for NFC supremacy. Green Bay and Atlanta, 1 p.m., Georgia Dome, Rodgers-Ryan, Cheese-Grits.
9. Rusty Smith. Vince Young. Jeff Fisher. Bud Adams. I'm already getting bored by the story, but Smith starts this week at Houston, Young stays home and stews, Fisher figures out how to play this one out and Adams stays loyal to Young. And so on. I like the fact that Young apologized to Fisher. But I'd still move on without him if I were the Titans. Too much melodrama.
10. The Vick Show. It's never boring around Michael Vick, and it won't be Sunday in Chicago. He's become the player you have to see -- and the Eagles the team you have to watch -- every weekend.