The Playbook: Previewing Cowboys-Saints, Lions-Bears, more Week 10 games
Dallas (5-4) at New Orleans (6-2) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: One of the interesting sub-stories in this game surrounds comments from Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett regarding the job done by former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who Jerry Jones fired in January after two seasons because he thought Ryan’s defenses contained too many moving parts. Ryan put up a league-average defense in 2012 despite injuries to several Cowboys starters, and he’s completely turned the Saints defense around in his first year in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Dallas D led by Monte Kiffin is … not so good. The Cowboys have allowed more than 400 yards passing in four different games this season, already an NFL record with the season halfway over.
“Rob is a fantastic coach,” Garrett said on Wednesday. “There’s no question about that. He’s a great guy and did a lot for our organization in the two years that he was here. Defensively we played very well, particularly last year, for most of the year. Probably through Week 10, we were one of the best defenses in the league. We really just got decimated by injuries, and I thought Rob did a good job of keeping everybody together and working through the different players that were in for us. I think he’s a fantastic coach. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he’s having the success he’s having down there [in New Orleans].”
Ryan goes from losing to brother Rex Ryan’s New York Jets last Sunday to possibly avenging his recent termination. As for New Orleans’ offense, it was thought Drew Brees would pick apart New York’s suspect secondary, but the Jets countered with consistent pressure up front, forcing Brees to alter his reads and throw before he wanted to. The Cowboys are hoping for the return of DeMarcus Ware, who has missed the last three weeks with a quadriceps injury. George Selvie has performed well in the meantime, and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is having yet another outstanding season. The Saints’ offensive line needs a big reset to avoid a third loss in four games after a 5-0 start.
Dallas’ offense is always a mixed bag, full of protection issues and inconsistent production, but Tony Romo certainly looked in charge of things during his game-winning drive against the Vikings on Sunday. Whether he can do the same against Ryan’s petri-dish defensive schemes is another matter. – Doug Farrar
Detroit (5-3) at Chicago (5-3) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: “The race is on,” Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh declared this week. Is it ever.
The Bears walked out of Lambeau Field with a win Monday — taking out Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers in the process — and thus creating a three-way tie atop the division. Backing that road victory with a home triumph over Detroit might put Chicago in the driver’s seat for the division crown.
Of course, the Lions may have something to say about that. They should be rested up after their bye, which gave them a few extra days to revel in their dramatic Week 8 victory over Dallas. The Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson connection was unstoppable in that one, as the duo combined for 329 yards through the air. Johnson has had far less success against the Bears, topping 100 yards in just two of the teams’ prior 12 meetings. (Megatron had four grabs for 44 yards and a touchdown in Detroit’s 40-32 win over Chicago earlier this season.)
Jay Cutler, on the flip side, has been particularly sharp against the Lions during his career. The Bears announced Thursday that Cutler will be back on the field and starting Sunday after missing a game-plus with a groin injury. Cutler is 7-2 against Detroit as Chicago’s QB and 4-0 against the Lions at Soldier Field.
Reggie Bush was the X-factor in Detroit’s Week 3 win over the Bears. He racked up 139 yards and a TD on the ground, constantly outracing Chicago’s D. The Bears will have to be better against him Sunday, and better than they were against Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy and James Starks (190 yards, two touchdowns combined Monday).
Because of that earlier Detroit victory over Chicago, Sunday’s game may be of more importance to the Bears. Another Lions win and Chicago would be a game back in the division and have no chance at claiming the head-to-head tiebreaker with Detroit. – Chris Burke
Denver (7-1) at San Diego (4-4) — 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: This is Denver’s first game since head coach John Fox’s heart surgery, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will act as interim head coach. There shouldn’t be too many adjustments — everyone knows Peyton Manning has the offense on lock, and Del Rio will have help with in-game adjustments from a highly competent coaching staff.
Denver’s main concern here is how it will deal with a Chargers offense that is very, very different than in years past. Former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have done a masterful job retooling the team’s offensive concepts to Philip Rivers’ benefit. Under Norv Turner, Rivers frequently had to wait for receivers to get open on longer routes behind patchwork offensive lines, testing mobility he did not have. But McCoy and Whisenhunt have taken Rivers into the 21st century, using a compelling combination of route mixtures in the short and intermediate game. As a result, Rivers is enjoying his best season in several years — he currently ranks behind only Manning in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics.
“Less shots down the field and more efficient passing,” Del Rio said this week about the Chargers’ new approach. “His numbers represent that, I think he’s 106-107 in passer rating [106.5, actually]. His completion percentage, I think, leads the league right now [72.2 percent, with Manning second at 71.1 percent]. So he’s getting the ball out of his hands and not taking a lot of sacks. Before they were kind of a chunk offense that would look for chunks, and they might take a sack here and there but they were going to throw the ball deep a lot during the game. It’s a little different approach.”
So, the Broncos have that to deal with. The Chargers, however, must pit their league-worst defense against a Broncos offense that is averaging 42.9 points per game. Coming off an overtime loss to the Washington Redskins last week, this is a bad setup for San Diego. Safety Eric Weddle put it best:
“If we don’t come out ready to rock and roll on Sunday, we’re going to get blasted.”
Yes, indeed. – DF
Carolina (5-3) at San Francisco (6-2) — 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: How impressive have the Panthers been in running off four straight wins to get to 5-3? Well, this game is arguably the most highly-anticipated of Week 10.
The competition level has not been exactly through the roof during Carolina’s run — Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta have six wins combined between them. But the Panthers have done what good teams are supposed to do by beating up on those lesser foes. The four victories have come by an average of 20.5 points, elevating the Panthers to the best point differential (+98) in the entire NFC.
They were off last week, but the 49ers head into Sunday even hotter than Carolina. After a sluggish 1-2 start to 2013, San Francisco has rolled to five straight wins, with its closest margin of victory at 12.
Will offense or defense have the edge Sunday? Both Carolina and San Francisco have topped 30 points in every game of their current runs; each team also features a top-five defense — Carolina at No. 2, San Francisco at No. 4. Something’s gotta give somewhere when Cam Newton and Co. crash Candlestick.
This is a measuring-stick sort of game for the Panthers. They missed a shot to open the season with a bang, letting a 12-7 decision slip away against Seattle in Week 1. Since then, they’ve rallied into playoff contention but have faced the easiest schedule in football. With New England, Miami, the Jets and two games against New Orleans still to come, an upset of the 49ers would sound the alarm for the rest of Carolina’s foes.
Sunday’s outcome may boil down to which front seven can keep the opposing quarterback contained. Led by rising star linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina has dominated up front, allowing a mere 79.1 yards rushing per game. San Francisco has had more trouble stopping the run (12th in the league compared to Carolina’s No. 2 ranking) and less success getting to the QB (17 sacks to Carolina’s 23).
If the 49ers defense cannot crank up the pressure a notch or two, stuffing Newton may be next to impossible. So, the onus may fall back on Kaepernick and the surging San Francisco offense to match the Panthers. — CB
Cincinnati (6-3) at Baltimore (3-5) – 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bengals must get their front four together without super-tackle Geno Atkins, and that could be a problem. Veteran Domata Peko has looked tentative at the line this season. Could this be the week for Ray Rice to bust out? Something had better kick in because Rice has looked all too mortal this season, especially in his 11-carry, 17-yard performance against the Browns on Sunday. – DF
Philadelphia (4-5) at Green Bay (5-3) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: A game that set up as Michael Vick versus Aaron Rodgers preseason now will feature Nick Foles versus Seneca Wallace. That’s a swap that could play to Philadelphia’s advantage on both accounts. The drop from Rodgers to Wallace certainly looms as a massive one for the Packers, even with their steady run game. Foles is coming off a record-tying seven-touchdown performance and matches wits with a Packers D that had trouble getting off the field Monday. – CB
Seattle (8-1) at Atlanta (2-6) – 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Seattle will look to avenge its divisional round playoff loss from last season, when it spotted the Falcons a 20-point halftime lead and almost came back to win it. Last Sunday, the Seahawks engineered a furious comeback against the Buccaneers, so they’re certainly capable. Job one will be improving their run fronts, because that Falcons loss exposed vulnerabilities that are still evident in an otherwise strong defense. – DF
St. Louis (3-6) at Indianapolis (6-2) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Colts have an all-important trip to Tennessee looming next Thursday, so keeping the eye on the ball here will be paramount. Fortunately for them, the Sam Bradford-less Rams might not be able to put up all that much resistance. This could be an opportunity for the Colts to finally get Trent Richardson rolling a bit — the Rams are 28th against the run and were gashed by the Titans last week. – CB
Houston (2-6) at Arizona (4-4) – 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: An interesting matchup between two underrated entities here — Houston quarterback Case Keenum has proven to be a complete player, while the Cardinals’ defense has been excellent from front to back. The difference here could be Arizona running back Andre Ellington (more about him in Smarter Stats), the only real cog in the Cardinals offense besides Larry Fitzgerald at this point. – DF