Andy Dalton has thrown for over 300 yards with three scores in two straight games. (Joe Robbins/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.
NY Jets (4-3) at Cincinnati (5-2) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Few are surprised by the Bengals' current 5-2 mark, which puts them at the top of the AFC North. However, this Jets team, which currently sits at 4-3 with a shot to claim the AFC East if it keeps playing reasonably well, has been a relative shock to most observers. A Rex Ryan-led team many thought would compete for the first pick in the 2014 draft has stayed afloat with a stifling front seven, decent enough secondary play and a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith who has wrapped enough efficiency around his understandable first-year yips to give the franchise hope at the most important position.
The Bengals are getting the most from their young quarterback as well -- third-year man Andy Dalton has thrown for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns in two games in a row for the second time in his career. Dalton is athletically limited at best, and his arm talent is not elite, but offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is making the most of him. Dalton currently ranks 10th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted quarterback rankings.
"You never quiet the critics as a quarterback. Ever," Gruden said of Dalton this week, after Dalton helped lift his team over the Detroit Lions last Sunday. "You just have to continue to produce and be consistent at the position. Ultimately you want to win the final game and maybe someday [Dalton's naysayers] can stop writing that he can't throw far enough."
If Dalton thought that he faced a stout defensive front in the game against Detroit, he hasn't seen anything yet. The Jets are as talented and multiple as any other NFL team when it comes to rushing the passer and stopping the run, and rookie Sheldon Richardson has been especially powerful.
It's an intriguing battle between two teams built fairly similarly -- both want to protect the quarterback with the run game and play great defense. The difference could be in which secondary steps up -- Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie has not been happy with his own play this year, and the Bengals lost Leon Hall for the season in the Lions game with a torn Achilles tendon. That will put Pacman Jones outside opposite Terence Newman, and you can expect the Jets to see if they can exploit that imbalance. -- Doug Farrar
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Dallas (4-3) at Detroit (4-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Cowboys would love to claim their fifth win Sunday. The Lions need their fifth win.
Dallas has taken control of the NFC East, courtesy of wins over Washington and Philadelphia on successive Sundays. Another victory this week in the Motor City not only would give America's Team a firmer stranglehold on the division, but also would deal a blow to an NFC wild-card contender.
And it's a blow the Lions can ill-afford after letting one slip away against the Bengals. The Lions' 27-24 home loss to Cincinnati -- a game in which they had multiple opportunities to take a fourth-quarter lead -- dropped them behind Green Bay in the NFC North and threatened to put a real damper on their postseason dreams. After this game, the Lions have their bye followed by road trips to Chicago and Pittsburgh. They'd prefer not to embark on that stretch as losers of three of four.
The offenses could rule the roost in this one. Dallas boasts the NFL's No. 3 scoring offense and expects to get running back DeMarco Murray back in the lineup. And Detroit, of course, features that potent Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson-Reggie Bush trio with some emerging complementary pieces like tight end Joseph Fauria.
Both teams have been rather horrid defending the pass, too. Even though they held the Eagles under 200 yards through the air last week, the Cowboys sit 30th in that category; the Lions are 28th and served up 364 yards passing to Cincinnati last week, an effort that led Detroit's staff to briefly bench No. 1 corner Chris Houston for his abysmal effort.
This matchup may come down to what happens in the trenches when Detroit's offense is on the field. The Cowboys have received stalwart efforts from defensive end George Selvie and tackle Jason Hatcher, but they'll be without star end DeMarcus Ware. It's unclear exactly who will block the Cowboys' edge rushers -- all three of Detroit's tackles (Riley Reiff, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard) are hurting, and the team just signed veteran stopgap Barry Richardson this week.
Given how the NFC has been set up through seven weeks, this could be an opening-round playoff preview. But both teams, and especially Detroit, have a lot of work to do before claiming spots in the postseason. -- Chris Burke
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Green Bay (4-2) at Minnesota (1-5) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Apparently, Josh Freeman suffered a concussion (or concussion-like symptoms) in his nightmare game against the New York Giants on Monday night but didn't report anything until Tuesday. Now that the Vikings know, they're preparing for this game with Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback. It puts the team back at square one for the season and with the guy they clearly don't want in the long term. Ponder is trying to salvage any remnants of a career that began when he was overdrafted in 2011; he has fallen back to earth since.
"It's been an interesting ride," Ponder said this week. "Obviously, the starting job swung away from me. It swings back, and it's time to grab a hold of it and not let it swing away from me again."
No matter who their quarterback may be, the Vikings need to feed the ball to Adrian Peterson more often. This would seem to be crushingly obvious advice, but Peterson has seen just 23 carries total in his last two games. The Packers rank third in Football Outsiders' defensive metrics against the run and 25th against the pass, but no matter ... if the Vikings don't establish the run and use play-action off that threat, they have no chance. That said, Ponder played perhaps his best NFL game last time he faced the Packers. In the 2012 regular-season finale, he completed 16-of-28 passes for 234 yards for three touchdowns and no picks in a 37-34 win that put the Vikings in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers' targets keep dwindling. The Pack lost receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones two weeks ago and tight end Jermichael Finley to a frightening spinal injury against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. Finley's timeline for return is unknown -- he may wind up on injured reserve. The Packers haven't ruled Jones out just yet, but they're certainly being prudent with everyone after what happened to Finley, who also suffered a serious concussion a month ago.
"When you come back, you want to make sure you're at your best," Jones recently said. "You don't want to re-aggravate an injury and now you're out longer. So, you want to come back at the right time, when you feel healthy."
In the meantime, Rodgers still has Jordy Nelson, and that combination has been the league's most productive this season. Rodgers has targeted Nelson 45 times for 32 catches, 526 yards, five touchdowns and a 137.8 quarterback rating. No matter who is in or out for Green Bay, Minnesota's young secondary will struggle to contain that passing attack if Rodgers is on point. -- DF
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NY Giants (1-6) at Philadelphia (3-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: It took the Giants until Week 7 to claim their first win of the season. If they grab No. 2 on Sunday, they'll put a serious dent in the Eagles' playoff hopes for 2013.
Philadelphia is coming off its worst performance of the season, at least offensively. With a struggling Nick Foles firing incompletions every which way and backup Matt Barkley tossing three interceptions in limited action, Chip Kelly's offense mustered all of three points against the Cowboys in a 17-3 loss. All signs point to Michael Vick being back in the starting lineup Sunday after sitting out two-plus games with a hamstring injury.
Vick should find some open space against the Giants' 31st-ranked defense, though Big Blue held Josh Freeman's Vikings scoreless last Monday (Minnesota's points came on an 86-yard punt return). Vick threw for 105 yards and rushed for another 79 in the Week 5 matchup between these two teams before Foles relieved him and led a 36-21 victory.
Eli Manning fired three interceptions in that game, part of a 15-interceptions-in-six-games stretch that fueled New York's 0-6 start. He did, however, manage to avoid a turnover against the Vikings, his first error-free showing of 2013.
While the Eagles have waited to officially deem Vick ready to roll Sunday, the Giants have their own injury woes, most notably at running back. With David Wilson and Brandon Jacobs both out of the lineup in Week 7, New York turned to 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Cox and journeyman Peyton Hillis to handle the load. Hillis did score, but that duo averaged only a little more than 2.0 yards per carry.
One very positive sign for the Giants last week: Jason Pierre-Paul appeared to be inching closer to 100 percent. He had been struggling since offseason back surgery, then missed several practices leading up to that game against Minnesota with an illness.
The Giants are the first team to face the Eagles twice this season, meaning their defense will be the first to see Kelly's unique offense multiple times. Will that help the Giants slam the door or will Kelly be ready with adjustments? -- CB
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Miami (3-3) at New England (5-2) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Lost amid all the talk about PushGate is that the Patriots also lost to the Jets because their secondary was overburdened as result of Aqib Talib's injury. They'll need him back by Sunday to take on Mike Wallace in an improving Dolphins passing game. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill is overcoming a shoulder injury, but he looked fairly sharp against the Falcons and Colts when he was protected against the pass rush. -- DF
Buffalo (3-4) at New Orleans (5-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Saints had their bye week to sit and stew over that last-second loss to the Patriots. They may take their frustrations out on a 3-4 Bills team that's coming off a big win in Miami. Buffalo's offense has been staggeringly consistent, scoring between 20 and 24 points in every single game so far. Given that the Saints are averaging 26.8 per outing, another similar showing probably will not be enough to pull off the upset. -- CB
Pittsburgh (2-4) at Oakland (2-4) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Last season, one of the Raiders' four victories came at Pittsburgh's expense -- a 34-31 Week 3 triumph that saw Carson Palmer toss three TD passes. Oakland could use a similar performance from Terrelle Pryor against a suddenly hot Steelers team. It hasn't been pretty, but back-to-back Steelers wins over the Jets and Ravens have them thinking about climbing into the playoff race. Another setback at the Raiders' hands would end those hopes ... and give Oakland a boost. -- CB
Washington (2-4) at Denver (6-1) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Mike Shanahan's return to Denver is the surface story here, but the real question is how on earth Washington's secondary will deal with Denver's combustible passing game. Each of the Redskins' three primary cornerbacks -- David Amerson, Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall -- have allowed quarterback ratings higher than 86.2. Denver's defense may also be angry after coming up short against Andrew Luck last Sunday, and Robert Griffin III could bear the brunt of that feeling. -- DF
Atlanta (2-4) at Arizona (3-4) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: The Falcons were able to torch Tampa Bay's defense without Roddy White and Julio Jones last Sunday, with reserve receiver Harry Douglas having a career day. Arizona presents a tougher challenge, with cornerback Patrick Peterson and do-it-all guy Tyrann Mathieu. Arizona's pass-rushers will also put a burden on the Falcons' iffy offensive line. Still, Arizona's front five may be the NFL's worst, and Carson Palmer tends to disintegrate under pressure. -- DF
Only For The Faithful
San Francisco (5-2) at Jacksonville (0-7) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The 0-7 Jaguars have played the toughest schedule in football through seven weeks -- their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .688. Drawing the streaking 5-2 49ers won't help matters. -- CB
Cleveland (3-4) at Kansas City (7-0) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Chiefs are the NFL's best pass-rushing team by a fairly wide margin, and only the Cardinals and Giants have allowed more total pressures than Cleveland. Oh, yeah -- Jason Campbell has replaced Brandon Weeden as the Browns' starting quarterback. Whatever the over is on Kansas City's sack total in this game, take it. -- DF
Seattle (6-1) at St. Louis (3-4) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: This Monday night matchup was a little juicier before Rams quarterback Sam Bradford suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Rams held Seattle to 33 points in two games between the teams last season -- one St. Louis win and one Seattle win. -- CB
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus.)
• If you think the Jets are content to keep Geno Smith away from the deep ball and have him dink-and-dunk as he gets the hang of the NFL, think again. Smith leads the league in deep passes (20 yards or more in the air) with 39. He's completed 18 of those passes for 601 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.
• One receiver to watch in the second half of the season is Dallas' Terrence Williams. The rookie from Baylor has been targeted 28 times by Tony Romo, and he's caught 24 of those passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns.
• Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett has been rightly praised as perhaps the best blocker at his position in recent years, but he's allowed a sack and four quarterback hurries in 42 pass-blocking snaps this season, tying him with Brandon Myers of the Giants in total pressures allowed among all tight ends. Cleveland's Gary Barnidge, on the other hand, has allowed just one QB hurry on 74 pass-blocking plays.
• Speaking of iffy pass-blocking in Chicago, rookie right tackle Jordan Mills is this week's winner of the Almost Award. He's allowed just one quarterback sack but a league-leading 30 hurries. Luke McCown had better hope that time is on Mills' side as it was when Jay Cutler was in the pocket.
• We don't talk too much about Miami's defensive line, and that really should change. Tackle Randy Starks is currently the most productive pass-rusher in the NFL at his position (three sacks, six QB hits, 17 hurries), and teammate Jared Odrick isn't too shabby himself (one sack, nine hits, 12 hurries). This is a line that proves how important quarterback pressure is beyond the sack statistic.
• How amazing is Kansas City's defense? Linebackers Tamba Hali (54) and Justin Houston (42) rank first and second in total pressures among 3-4 players. One team hasn't had the top two guys since at least 2008. The Steelers were the closest in 2008, when LaMarr Woodley ranked second with 59 (far behind DeMarcus Ware's 81), and James Harrison placed fourth (behind Mr. Hali) with 57. Hali used to be a man on an island when it came to quarterback disruption, but new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has changed everything for the better.
• Matchup to Watch: Harry Douglas vs. Patrick Peterson.
As the fill-in No. 1 receiver for Atlanta last week, with Roddy White joining Julio Jones on the shelf, Harry Douglas merely delivered the best game of his career (149 yards on seven catches). White may miss this weekend's game in Arizona, too, meaning Douglas could draw the attention of top Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson. The 2-4 Falcons badly need a win on the road if they're to really get their season back on track. To pull that off, quarterback Matt Ryan will have to rely on Douglas to find some openings against Peterson and an opportunistic Arizona pass defense.
• This Week's Sleeper: Thaddeus Lewis, Buffalo.
Hard to say if Lewis even counts as a "sleeper" anymore, following two relatively impressive starts for the Bills. He will be in the spotlight, however, as Buffalo tries to navigate its way to a surprising win in New Orleans.
Consider this an important test for the revamped, Rob Ryan-led Saints defense. The Saints have yet to see a really mobile quarterback in 2013, and they endured all sorts of issues against those players last season: two losses to Cam Newton's Panthers, 40 points allowed against RGIII and the Redskins and a 31-21 loss to Colin Kaepernick's 49ers.
This Saints defense is a far cry from that 2012 version, especially when it comes to harassing the quarterback. How New Orleans performs against Lewis could foretell its fate in upcoming matchups with Newton, Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
• Pressure's On ...: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh.
The Steelers must turn their current two-game win streak into a lengthy, productive run if they hope to erase an 0-4 start. How successful Pittsburgh is with that turnaround attempt might come down to its ability to corral Terrelle Pryor on Sunday.
The versatile Polamalu will draw a healthy dose of responsibility in that battle. The Steelers have just eight sacks this season, so consistently pressuring Pryor may not be as realistic a goal as simply limiting what he can do with his feet. Polamalu's ability to step up from his safety spot to help in the box will be critical in keeping Oakland's QB in check.
• Rookie Spotlight: Eric Fisher, Kansas City.
Lost a bit in the Chiefs' surprising 7-0 start has been the disappointing play of the No. 1 overall pick. Fisher has allowed 16 QB hurries and three sacks (both team-highs) in his six games. Worse yet, he has not displayed any real improvement on a week-to-week basis.
Cleveland's aggressive defense will test him on the edge. The Browns have 20 sacks on the year, and their 3-4 scheme features talented edge players in Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and rookie Barkevious Mingo. They will no doubt come right after Fisher, who could use a standout performance. -- CB
• Detroit Lions. The Lions headed into Week 7 needing to go at least 1-1 on a homestand against Cincinnati and Dallas. Losing to the Bengals put the onus on them for this Sunday. They cannot afford to let the Packers open up any more space in the NFC North. -- CB
• New York Jets. Yes, the Jets have surprised with a 4-3 record, as stated earlier. But they also have a minus-28 point differential (the only winning team allowing more points than it has scored), and a win over Cincinnati would go a long way toward establishing the Jets as a real contender at the halfway point. -- DF
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