On Thursday night, the New Orleans Saints took over first place in the NFC South, handing the Panthers a third loss in as many weeks and perhaps giving us more clarity in the NFC playoff picture.
That was the start of Week 9, but there are many more NFL games on the slate this Sunday and on Monday night.
XN Sports will take a look at five marquee matchups, providing you with some insight and one bold prediction. Last week, we predicted a Cardinals victory, a game-winning field goal in the Ravens-Bengals battle and Drew Brees leading the Saints past the previously streaking Packers.
Onto Week 9 …
Jets @ Chiefs
Michael Vick has been named the Jets’ Week 9 starter at quarterback, the 27th quarterback to start a game for Gang Green since Joe Namath‘s final game in 1976. Fittingly, Vick gets the nod against his former coach in Philadelphia, Andy Reid. Reid’s Chiefs have reeled off two straight wins and are suddenly reminding us they’re not yet out of the playoff race.
On paper, this looks like a total mismatch. In just five quarters of action this season, Vick has racked up four fumbles, including three in three quarters while filling in for the benched Geno Smith a week ago against Buffalo. But it’s possible that the veteran Vick did not expect to see the field Sunday, and as a result was not in the right mindset to play.
Bold prediction: This week, Vick will be mentally prepared to face the Chiefs and perhaps remind people he’s capable of being a starting NFL quarterback. Fumbles — not this time around. Vick makes use of new Jets weapon Percy Harvin and rips off some lengthy runs, circa Vick 2004, as the Jets upend the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. It becomes Vick’s job to lose now.
Cowboys vs. Cardinals
Is Tony Romo in or out? The oft-maligned Cowboys quarterback has quieted his critics with his stellar play this season. But Romo finally slipped up on Monday night when he returned from a back injury and was unable to complete a fourth-down pass, stalling in overtime and allowing Dallas to lose for the first time since Week 1. Romo is listed as a game-time decision, and if he cannot go, it’ll be Brandon Weeden who gets the nod after playing well in place of Romo last week.
DeMarco Murray reeled off his eighth consecutive 100-yard game to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing on the season, and now gets arguably his toughest test to date against a stingy Cardinals defense, which has yet to allow a 100-yard game to an opposing running back this season.
Bold prediction: People continue to disregard Arizona, which is leading the NFC West, the division many named as the most competitive division in all of football. If Romo is a no-go for Dallas, are we really expecting Weeden to break through with a good game against this defense? Let’s hope Romo is healthy and can play. Otherwise, this will be the most lopsided loss of the Cowboys’ season. And remember, they fell to the 49ers by 11 in the opener.
Broncos @ Patriots
It’s the annual Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning showdown, which every year tends to give us a memorable matchup. This historic rivalry features the usual high stakes: the reigning AFC champion Broncos, who have won four in a row, must head to Foxborough for what should be unfavorable weather conditions to take on a red-hot Brady and the Patriots, who have also won four straight.
There’s another wrinkle this year, as another former Patriots standout has switched allegiances to Denver. First there was Wes Welker, and now Aqib Talib. While Welker has been almost a non-factor for the Broncos, Talib is a part of the revamped Denver defense, the fourth-ranked unit in the NFL
Bold prediction: There are two critical factors that will decide the outcome. A healthy Rob Gronkowski has been the catalyst for New England’s offense, while the tandem of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have had a similar impact on the Denver D. The multitude of capable Broncos defenders might be able to slow down Gronk, but I don’t know if the Patriots’ tackles can slow down this pass rush. Miller, who has 9.0 sacks this season and had 2.0 last year against the Pats, gets 3.0 this go-round, while Ware adds 2.0 of his own.
Ravens @ Steelers
The Ravens and Steelers met in Week 2 only to see the Ravens run away with a 26-6 victory. That was a different Steelers team than the one we’re seeing now, which is rocking the most prolific offense in football. That’s the team that’ll host Baltimore with tremendous division ramifications at stake.
Entering the contest, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied for second place in the AFC North with 5-3 records. The Ravens are 2-2 on the road while the Steelers are 3-1 at Heinz Field, including back-to-back wins over Houston and AFC South-leading Indianapolis in the last two weeks.
Bold prediction: Bold would be saying the Ravens march into the Steel City and stymie the surging Steelers. Since 2007, when these two teams meet the outcome has been decided by about 8 points. Earlier this year, these teams bucked the trend when the Ravens handled the Steelers by 20 points. This time, it’s the Steelers bucking the trend, avenging their earlier-season loss with a convincing double-digit win over their arch-rival.
Vikings vs. Washington
While this showdown doesn’t have much at stake in terms of divisional races or the playoff picture, it does mark what we expect to be the return of RGIII. Griffin is expected to start in place of Colt McCoy, who has helped Washington to two straight wins. Griffin has not appeared in a game since early in Week 2, but is apparently at full strength and in need of a promising finish to the season in order to calm the nerves of fans in the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, Teddy Bridgewater is coming off his second win as a the Vikings’ starting quarterback, and he got it thanks to fellow rookie Anthony Barr forcing and returning a fumble for a touchdown in overtime against the Buccaneers. Minnesota owns the NFL’s eighth-ranked defense, which has held opposing signal-callers to 212.1 yards per game, the fourth-lowest mark in the league.
Bold prediction: This showdown features the two old Bengals coordinators, Jay Gruden now with Washington and Mike Zimmer with the Vikings. The odds actually favor Minnesota, a narrow favorite at home. The Vikings’ biggest strength has been Zimmer’s D, but quietly Washington has held its last three opponents to under 18 points per game. If the defenses can match one another’s play, I lean toward an emotional Griffin to lead his team to victory late in the fourth quarter.