Here is how The Examiner breaks down this week in the NFL.
WEEK 9 STORY LINES
1. New Orleans lost its first four games, yet the Saints are nearly in command in the mediocre NFC South. And Reggie Bush and Co. could really take charge in the second half of the season. After hosting Jacksonville and St. Louis, they play winnable road games at Houston and Carolina. The team that could be teetering is Tampa Bay. However, the Buccaneers could get healthy because of their schedule. Of their last eight games, only two come against teams that currently have winning records: Washington and Carolina. Meanwhile, the first-place Panthers have it the worst. Of their last nine games, six come against teams with winning records.
2. A handful of teams almost face make-or-break games as the midway point of the season approaches. Cincinnati and Philadelphia, in particular, have key games where a loss could crush them. The Bengals face a must-win at Buffalo. A loss drops them to 2-6 and could leave Cincy four games out of first. The Eagles host Dallas and a loss would leave them four games out as well. And Philly still has road games at Washington, New England, Dallas and New Orleans, making even an NFC wild-card berth difficult.
3. It’s been five years since the Cleveland Browns have made the playoffs. It’s been even longer since they had this kind of offense. And that’s why Cleveland is 4-3 — and favored against Seattle this weekend. Quarterback Derek Anderson has 17 touchdown passes, more than 19 teams have touchdowns period. Receiver Braylon Edwards (nine touchdowns) is a budding star. But the ultimate downfall will be the defense and its suspect line.
— John Keim
GAME OF THE WEEK
Patriots (8-0) at Colts (7-0)
It’s Good vs. Evil. The Cheating Coach vs. the Godly Coach. Peyton Manning, left, vs. Tom Brady. Every team that has played New England will root for the Pats to get theirs this week. Not that many people expect that to happen in this matchup of unbeatens. These teams have combined to win four of the last six Super Bowls; of course, three were won by New England. And the Colts exorcised one demon by rallying to beat the Patriots in last year’s AFC Championship Game. New England is much better now, thanks to its vastly improved receiving corps. The Colts have the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense and third-ranked offense. New England has the NFL’s third-ranked defense and top-ranked offense.
— John Keim
WEEK 9 PICKS
REDSKINS AT JETS Need relief after a blowout loss? J-E-T-S! JETS! JETS! JETS! ’Skins run up the score. Redskins 23, Jets 13
PACKERS AT CHIEFS Packers are one second-half collapse from 7-0. But a road game after a Monday road game? Chiefs 20, Packers 14
CARDINALS AT BUCCANEERS Both teams have lost two straight. Cards 1-3 away from home. Not a good sign. Bucs 27, Cards 23
PANTHERS AT TITANS David Carr’s 4.98 yards per attempt is NFL’s worst among starting QBs. Titans 13, Panthers 0
49ERS AT FALCONS Too bad the Pats-Colts game is overshadowing this marquee matchup. May the worst team win. Falcons 5, Niners 3
TEXANS AT RAIDERS See above statement — only this one will be a shootout, Wild West-style. Raiders 12, Texans 10
JAGUARS AT SAINTS The Saints’ offense is starting to find a rhythm. Jags are averaging 4.5 yards per rush. Saints 23, Jags 21
BRONCOS AT LIONS Opposing QBs have 106.6 passer rating against the Broncos. Lions like to pass — a lot. Lions 27, Broncos 20
BENGALS AT BILLS J.P. Losman vs. the Bengals’ “D”; something lousy has a chance to finally look good. J.P.’s 14, No “D’s” 13
CHARGERS AT VIKINGS See, we told you Norv Turner could coach. OK, we didn’t. But the Chargers are hot. Chargers 24, Vikings 17
SEAHAWKS AT BROWNS Browns have not won three straight since 2001. Seahawks’ “O” could explode. Upset special. Seahawks 31, Browns 28
PATRIOTS AT COLTS Colts find a way to prevent Pats from running up the score; it’s called defense. Pats 28, Colts 24
COWBOYS AT EAGLES This could be a last chance for the Eagles to get into the NFC East race. Eagles 26, Cowboys 23
RAVENS AT STEELERS In last four games, Ravens averaging 14 points, Steelers averaging nearly 22. Steelers 22, Ravens 14
— John Keim
PLAYER TO WATCH
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is off to a decent start, with 11 touchdowns, six interceptions and an 88.7 passer rating. But he has a chance for a big game Sunday at Cleveland. The Browns have allowed 18 touchdown passes, tied for last in the NFL.