The bye weeks are over. The teams that lead their divisions will have their eyes on the playoff prize, and one showdown should break a tie atop one of the divisions.
Likewise, it's accurate to say that no one is completely eliminated from playoff contention yet, but the teams that are 1–8 and 2–7 are getting close. Unless such teams are playing each other (and we do have one matchup between 1–8 teams this week), it's safe to assume those teams are not mentally engaged and are likely to be beaten — perhaps severely.
On the other hand, more than a month remains in the NFL season. Teams with 4–5 or 5–4 records are still in the hunt. Whether they will perform appropriately may well depend on how successful their coaches are at motivating them.
And for some of those coaches, motivating teams in the .500 range will be a considerable challenge.
- Miami (4–5) at Carolina (4–5) — If Ronnie Brown was the primary reason you were going to tune in to the Miami–Carolina game, you might as well make alternative plans. The Dolphins' running back is out with a foot injury, and his status for the rest of the season is uncertain. However, both teams are in the hunt for one of the two wild card slots in their respective leagues so there is something on the line. It's a longshot in both cases, but the way is probably a little clearer for Carolina. I'll give the edge to the Panthers on that basis.
- Pittsburgh (6–3) at Kansas City (2–7) — Kansas City wide receiver Dwayne Bowe has been suspended for four games for "violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances." Currently, he ranks 22nd in the AFC in receiving. Kent Babb writes, in the Kansas City Star's blog on the Chiefs, that Bowe's suspension "casts a long shadow on the future" for the Chiefs. But,even if he was going to be in the lineup, the Chiefs wouldn't have a chance of beating the Steelers, who are sure to be surly after their loss to Cincinnati last Sunday. Even the probable absence of Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu doesn't seem likely to help Kansas City's chances, although having Bowe with Polamalu out of the lineup wouldn't have hurt.
- Seattle (3–6) at Minnesota (8–1) — The Vikings' owner says he wants Brett Favre back in uniform next season — and it isn't hard to understand why. Minnesota is off to an 8–1 start with its 40–year–old quarterback, who "is on pace statistically for one of his best seasons," writes Sean Leahy of USA Today. It's hard to argue the point, but I would just caution NFL fans to wait and see what happens in December. It was last December, you may recall, when the Favre–led Jets, seemingly cruising into the playoffs, crashed and burned. The Vikings seem to have more talent than the Jets did, but there are a few hurdles the Vikings must clear next month, including two dates with the Bears, a trip to Arizona and home games against Cincinnati and the Giants. This week, though, the Vikings should prevail and remain unbeaten at home.
- Buffalo (3–6) at Jacksonville (5–4) — Buffalo fired its head coach Tuesday after what has been a disappointing start for a team that felt the playoffs were within reach when it signed Terrell Owens back in the spring. An interim coach, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, has been named. The Buffalo News reports some big names are being considered in the search for a new head coach, and that the last seven games of the season amount to an ongoing audition for Fewell. Can the Bills win their first game for their new — possibly temporary — head coach? Call me a skeptic. I pick Jacksonville.
- Atlanta (5–4) at New York Giants (5–4) — All things considered, this game looks pretty even so I'll give the nod to the home team. The Giants only trail the Cowboys by a single game. The Falcons trail the Saints by four games. New York has less ground to make up, therefore more motivation.
- New Orleans (9–0) at Tampa Bay (1–8) — Bob Fortus of the New Orleans Times–Picayune acknowledges that Tampa Bay is 1–8 but warns that "the Buccaneers are beginning to play better." Tampa Bay, he points out, beat Green Bay two weeks ago and narrowly lost to Miami last week. All true. But this week the Bucs are playing Drew Brees and the undefeated New Orleans Saints. That's a completely different matter. I expect New Orleans, which has scored more points than any other NFL team, to win by at least 10 points.
- Cleveland (1–8) at Detroit (1–8) — There are four one–win teams in the NFL, and those lucky fans in Detroit get to see two of them play this weekend. Detroit has the better offense, Cleveland has the better defense. Which will prevail? Personally, I rate it a tossup, but I'll give a very narrow edge to the home team.
- Washington (3–6) at Dallas (6–3) — There was a time when the Dallas–Washington rivalry was one of the best in football. In this weekend's game, the Cowboys have to be considered the favorites, but Dallas is coming off a poor performance at Green Bay while the Redskins recorded a win over the once–dominant Denver Broncos, which lends some credibility to Tim Cowlishaw's assertion in the Dallas Morning News that the Cowboys have a tough road ahead of them. I expect Dallas to win, but that's mainly because they're feeling the pressure of having the 5–4 Eagles and Giants in hot pursuit. I'll take the Cowboys — who suddenly aren't looking as good as they did before their trip to Lambeau Field.
- San Francisco (4–5) at Green Bay (5–4) — Back in the mid–1990s, the Packers ended the Joe Montana–Steve Young championship era with a 27–17 playoff victory over the 49ers — and began the Packers' revival under Brett Favre. Lately, both teams have reverted to afterthoughts in the NFL, but the winner of this game will continue to entertain dreams of the 2009 postseason. I'll pick Green Bay.
- Indianapolis (9–0) at Baltimore (5–4) — The Ravens struggled to beat the Browns on Monday. The Colts, meanwhile, turned back a pretty good New England team. I'll take the Colts, who are now USA Today's top–ranked NFL team.
- Arizona (6–3) at St. Louis (1–8) — This game looks decidedly like a mismatch. If the Rams have anything in their favor, it is the fact that they're playing at home. Even so, I think Arizona should win by at least a touchdown.
- New York Jets (4–5) at New England (6–3) — After all their success in the past decade, you might think there would be little to complain about with the Patriots. But Albert Breer writes, in the Boston Globe, that "[t]here is a category in which the offenses in Detroit, Jacksonville, and Washington outrank the Patriots. A pretty important one, too." Which one is it? It's red zone scoring opportunities. The Pats are 25th in the NFL. Red–zone offense was important in the game against Indianapolis, Breer points out. The Colts scored 100% of the time when they were in the red zone. The Patriots scored 50% of the time. Will it be a factor against the Jets? I'm inclined to think it won't. I pick New England to win the game.
- Cincinnati (7–2) at Oakland (2–7) — I'm starting to think I misjudged the Bengals. They might have their act together after all. They've swept the Steelers (Paul Daugherty writes, in the Cincinnati Enquirer, that they "Steeler–ed the Steelers" in Pittsburgh Sunday), and they're perfect in AFC North play with only one division game (at home against pitiful Cleveland) left on their schedule. On top of that, only two (possibly three) of their remaining opponents appear to have enough firepower to give them much trouble. The Raiders are not one of those two (maybe three) teams. I pick the Bengals to stay unbeaten on the road.
- San Diego (6–3) at Denver (6–3) — Mark Kiszla writes, in the Denver Post, that "[t]he Broncos have the smell of a team in crisis." I suppose that is so. The Broncos were once 6–0, but they've lost three straight, the most recent being a 10–point loss to Washington. This week Denver plays San Diego, with the winner taking the lead in the AFC West. Actually, it would be appropriate for Denver to end this skid with a win over the Chargers. San Diego was the last team Denver beat, back on Oct. 19. But will the Broncos beat the Chargers, who haven't lost since that first match with the Broncos? Clearly, both teams have been going in different directions since that day, and I see no reason to predict they will reverse course. Kiszla has concluded that quarterback Kyle Orton's career in Denver is done if he isn't in the huddle on Sunday. Orton missed practice this week due to some torn ligaments in his left ankle. So long, Kyle. I pick San Diego.
- Philadelphia (5–4) at Chicago (4–5) — Statistically, the Eagles are having a better season, but the Bears are 3–1 at home while the Eagles are 2–2 on the road. Both teams have two–game losing streaks. I give the edge to the Eagles.
- Tennessee (3–6) at Houston (5–4) — After starting with six straight wins, the Titans are starting to look more like last year's team with three straight wins. Houston won the first meeting between the teams back in September, but the margin was only three points. I'm going to pick Tennessee to return the favor. At 3–6, the Titans aren't out of the running for a wild card spot yet.