1. Cam Newton vs. Robert Griffin III
It’s last year’s rookie phenom quarterback vs. this year’s. Cam Newton and his 1-6 Carolina Panthers sure could use the victory, as difficult as that might be at Washington. (Do the Panthers ever play at home?) Robert Griffin III is no doubt anxious to (A) bounce back from his worst game of the year in Pittsburgh, and (B) show Newton who the real dual-threat star of the NFL is.
2. Eli Manning vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Two of the four “Class of 2004” quarterbacks have at it at MetLife Stadium in hurricane-ravaged New Jersey – Eli Manning of the Giants, and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers. Big Ben is proud of the legacy that he, Eli, Matt Schaub and Phil Rivers are cooking up: “I hope that we can play well enough that one day they talk about us as maybe the best quarterback draft class of all time.”
3. Mario Williams vs. embarrassment
Mario Williams was so vital to the success of the Houston Texans defence last year that (1) after he went down, the defence got better, (2) GM Rick Smith didn’t even bother trying to re-sign Williams in March and (3) the Texans defence this year is even better than last year. But the Buffalo Bust has a sore wrist, ya know. The last thing he needs is to get skunked at his former NFL home of six years.
Four big games on Sunday
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2)
Is it way too early to suggest this could be a Super Bowl sneak-peek? Yes, it is. But come playoff time, should both teams continue on their corrected courses, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more dynamic matchup of quarterbacks than Big Ben vs. Little Manning. New York currently has won four in a row, Pittsburgh two in a row. The local Hurricane Sandy fallout just adds to this game’s drama.
2. Dallas Cowboys (3-4) at Atlanta Falcons (7-0)
Tony Romo might have 13 interceptions and two fumbles before his team’s halfway point. But when he faces an undefeated team deep into the season, watch out. He and the Cowboys beat the 9-0 Colts in 2006, and beat the 13-0 Saints in 2009. And let’s be honest. The Falcons aren’t exactly gangbusters at home, despite their record. They deserved to lose to both Carolina and Oakland.
3. Arizona Cardinals (4-4) at Green Bay Packers (5-3)
The two teams that lead the league in sacks? Arizona and Green Bay, each with 26. The two teams that lead the league in sacks allowed? Uh-huh. Arizona leads with 39, and Green Bay is second with 28. We’re going to go way out on a limb here and predict there’ll be a lot of sacks in this game, which is actually pretty big for these teams with NFC playoff aspirations.
4. Denver Broncos (4-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-4)
It’s been a while since Peyton Manning was on a team that was two games over .500. This arguably is the Broncos’ last tough one for a while – if it’s even that. The Bengals are a mystery this year. They sometimes blitz like demons, other times not so much. And Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green in one quarter can look like the greatest pass combo since Montana-to-Rice – then look like Sanchez-to-Kerley the next.
Must-win Sunday: The team that must win, or else
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4)
Greg Schiano’s Bucs pulled off an impressive victory at Minnesota a week ago Thursday. They can actually jump into NFC playoff discussion by improving to .500 with a win at Oakland. Nobody thought the Bucs could contend this year, so the winnable three-game stretch they’re about to start – at Oakland, San Diego, at Carolina – is vital to that cause.
Quick-hit breakfast items:
You know how you always hear coaches say with monotonous regularity that they must win the turnover battle?
The top NFC teams in turnover differential just happen to be the New York Giants (+13), Chicago Bears (+12) and Atlanta Falcons (+10) – owners of the three best records in the conference.
Similarly, the top AFC teams in turnover differential are the New England Patriots (+13), Houston Texans (+7) and Baltimore Ravens (+5).
Yup, they’re the top three teams by record in the AFC.
The worst team in the NFL also happens to be far and away the worst in this category. The 1-7 Kansas City Chiefs are an abysmal -20.
Coincidences or indisputable trend? You be the judge.
The only teams yet to lose on the road are Atlanta and Houston. Kansas City and Jacksonville are the only teams yet to win at home.
New England is ridiculously far ahead of the rest of the league in terms of first downs amassed, with 232. Green Bay is second, with 180. That’s 29% fewer than the Patriots. Conversely, Jacksonville is by far the worst at moving the ball – having picked up only 101 first downs in seven games, just 14 per game.
The big number
Number of takeaways the Indianapolis Colts have – two interceptions and one fumble recovery. By contrast, Arizona has 33.