From the young guns on Thursday to the masters of quarterbacking on Sunday night, from Arrowhead to Lambeau to London -- Week 8 of the NFL season guarantees a few upsets fueled by desperation, injuries or misplaced complacence.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Minnesota Vikings. Tampa Bay showed fortitude in their game last Sunday as Josh Freeman passed for 420 yards! Okay, it was against the Saints. The third-year QB and WR Vincent Jackson have begun to click and the wideout came down with 216 yards and a score. The Bucs have scored almost 30 points per contest in their last three weeks. Usually when you put up 513 yards of offense and hold opposing rushers to 81 yards, you win. As for the Bucs D, Ronde Barber intercepted Drew Brees early -- and then the record-setter scored four times. What can you do?
Adrian Peterson had one of his trademark "you've got to be kidding me" touchdown runs in Week 7. Arizona has a decent defense and Peterson put up 153 yards against them, frequently while carrying defenders or pushing them in a pile. Percy Harvin contributed a TD catch, but Christian Ponder needs to improve some reckless decision-making. See above on Barber.
Mercurial rookie safety Harrison Smith returned an INT for a score and the defense sacked Cardinals QB John Skelton seven times. Josh Freeman, consider yourself warned.
Prediction: Vikings by six.
Miami Dolphins at New York Jets. Coming off the bye, Ryan Tannehill needs to produce more than the 192 offensive yards gained against St. Louis. The 'Fins must improve on their recent 63 rushing yards per game to have a shot in the Big Apple.
Mark Sanchez might have a good week since Miami has only the 27th passing D, but he can't miss wide-open receivers and then take a ten-yard sack when his team is trying to stay in field-goal range. Sometimes, No. 6 makes supporting him a bit difficult. Yes, rookie receiver Stephen Hill dropped a sure winner, but still...
The defense had their best outing yet against the Pats in Week 7 and third-year corner Kyle Wilson is getting much better through his trial-by-fire. Overall, however, there is far too little discipline on this New York team. There's a switch.
Biggest matchup: The New York Jets desired power rushing against the NFL's fourth-ranked running D for Miami. Calling Shonn Greene. The one from last week, not the previous two years.
Prediction: Jets by a field goal.
San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Browns. The Bolts went into their bye week reeling from the Peyton Manning effect. Despite general manager A.J. Smith's years of draining away talent, Philip Rivers always makes them competitive--last week's meltdown notwithstanding. So many receiving options have left Southern California that (allegedly) the remaining ball-catchers might be using the 21st century version of Stickum.
The Browns have found a quarterback--and an aggressive owner. Brandon Weeden passed for 264 yards, two TDs and zero INTs. It should have been three TDs, but Josh Gordon dropped a game-winner. Is it something in the water? An injury-decimated Colts defense held the Browns to 55 rushing yards. That wasn't the plan when they drafted Trent Richardson, who is extremely questionable with a rib injury.
Meanwhile, the Browns D let practically anonymous Indy RBs (and their supposedly non-mobile QB) gain 148 yards. Unless that changes, Philip Rivers won't have to do much except hand the ball off.
Prediction: Chargers by a field goal.
Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans. Injuries may play a part here since three Colts D-linemen are questionable while there will be a new tackle protecting Matt Hasselbeck's blind side.
Andrew Luck rushed for two scores in Week 7. Don't expect that to happen often. The Colts controlled the ground and the clock. The Titans defense should be able to prevent a repeat, but they are too inconsistent for fans to count on it. Luck might have some success, since the Titans secondary is allowing 7.5 yards per attempt in recent games.
Please, Mr. Adams -- don't make your coach put Jake Locker back in. What else does Matt Hasselbeck have to do? He's won two games in a row, last week on the road in the last 1:03 of the game. On fourth-and-nine. The offense converted 9-of-14 third downs and 1-of-2 fourth downs and Matt Hasselbeck completed 22-of-33 passes.
Bottom line: Tennessee rusher Chris Johnson has made fans cautiously optimistic that he isn't out of the league quite yet (195 yards and two scores). He should succeed against a Colts defense giving up an average of 159 running yards per game this season.
Prediction: Titans by six.
New England Patriots at St. Louis Rams (in London). If you felt the need to bite your nails during Stephen Gostkowski's two clutch Field Goals, you must not watch many Pats games. Week 7 against the Jets was so close and hard-fought that there is an outside chance New England may have a letdown in Merry Ole England. Don't bet on it.
Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley will combine to run the ball for a rushing offense that's put up over 150 yards in each of their last three games. Yes, in New England. Combined with Tom Brady's usual brilliance, the offense is scoring ten more points per game during this span than the Rams.
However, the Rams D is allowing less than 17 points per contest recently. If they can hold Brady to under 21 points, Sam Bradford and company may have a shot. Bradford at least managed a professional level of pass-completions this past Sunday, going 21-of-34 for 255 yards. The team just signed O-lineman Chris Williams to help out. That's an excellent idea, since the Rams allowed 36 sacks in 2011 and 34 in 2010. In less than half of a season, Bradford has now been officially dumped 21 times. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is running the same neither-fish-nor-fowl schemes he did as a Jet -- with the same results. It's as if he wants to be a West Coast guy, but hears his father's voice in his head telling him to pound the run. A sad case.
PK Greg Zeurlein will probably break the NFL record in his career -- possibly soon. However, the Rams need offensive production not based on a rookie's leg.
Defensively, St. Louis actually has the personnel and the coaching aggression needed to get in Brady's grill. This has been scientifically proven as the only way to beat No. 12.
Prediction: Patriots by a TD. (St. Louis is 6-2 ATS in their last eight games for those who care.)
Jacksonville Jaguars at Green Bay Packers. Clearly, Jacksonville must get a new plan. RB Maurice Jones-Drew will not be available, but Rashad Jennings is no slouch. He just can't carry an offense. The QB has to find Justin Blackmon. It would help if Blackmon could find some open grass. Even though backup QB Chad Henne only managed a couple of first downs, Blaine Gabbert probably knows that if he goes out, he'll lose his job. However they do it, the Jaguars offense must improve on last week's 1-of-15 third-down conversion attempts.
Have you heard? Aaron Rodgers broke a few more records: reaching 150 TD passes with about 20 fewer INTs than Dan Marino and setting the Packers' highest single-game completion rating of 81.1 percent. Is it going to be this way for as long as he and Drew Brees keep playing? Probably. Just go with it. Did I mention that he's averaging 8.2 yards per pass? Yeah. The offense racked up 33 points in the past three weeks with only 24.7 allowed on D.
However, former Defensive Player of the Year, Heisman winner and Super Bowl champ DB Charles Woodson just re-broke his collarbone. Rookie CB Casey Hayward has arrived. Playing in place of injured starter Sam Shields the kid has intercepted four passes in three games. That's wonderful, but it's not Charles Woodson.
Bottom line: Numbers don't always tell the tale, but the Jags have scored 12 points while giving up almost 33 points for the past three weeks.
Prediction: Packers by two touchdowns.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles. It's the battle of the birds! Atlanta squeaked out a win in Week 6 despite trailing the Raiders in yards gained 474 - to -286. Matt Ryan was having one of those seasons that elevate QBs to top-tier status -- and then he threw three interceptions in the first half. However, the defense continues to be the best Atlanta group in Mike Smith's tenure as head coach. Thank you, Mike Nolan.
If the Eagles are going to keep Michael Vick as their QB, perhaps Philly should change their name to the Ostriches. Vick can run around the field while the fans stick their heads in the sand about their coach. Their head coach, not the man who was scapegoated after 14 years of loyalty and tireless, selfless work.
If Andy Reid had kept Mike Kafka on the roster, instead of going with rookie Nick Foles as the only backup QB, Michael Vick would be riding pine. Which is probably exactly why Reid engineered his roster to keep Vick under center no matter what. Someone needs to remind Andy that he has one of the best RBs in the league. Vick might look better if LeSean McCoy got the ball more often. 71 rushing yards in Week 6. Seriously?
Prediction: Falcons by a field goal.
Washington at Pittsburgh Steelers. If you weren't watching on Sunday, you missed a rare event: Jason Pierre-Paul missed a sack one-on-one in space. Any quarterback other than Robert Griffin III and the result would have been just another notch in JPP's belt. Win or lose, RGIII is 2012's must-see TV. Just ask the Giants defense. Wonder if Osi Umenyiora still wants to call him "Bob?"
Mike Shanahan signed RB Keiland Williams. Expect to see him trying to scoot past the Pittsburgh D. TE Chris Cooley returns to the team and will try to get up to speed in a week.
The defense is a patchwork of older and inexperienced players trying to fill in around far too many injuries.
Ben Roethlisberger may have made cracks about a "dink and dunk" offense this week, but he still passed for 278 yards and a score. Would this be the moment to point out that RGIII's QB rating is 101.8 while Ben's is 98.6? Third-string running back Jonathan Dwyer (122 yards on 17 carries) proved that his impressive preseason performance could carry over when the score counts. Rashard who?
Say what you will about the Steelers old and injured defense, they held BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the Andy Dalton/A.J. Green combo to 185 total yards. And they were in Cincinnati.
Bottom line: RGIII is going to be an NFL wild card for his whole career, but the defense is giving up almost 26 points recently, while the Steelers are only surrendering 19. However, Washington is scoring five more points than the Steelers this month.
Prediction: Washington by two. All-Pro LB London Fletcher is questionable with a hamstring injury. If he cannot play, switch to Pittsburgh. (The Steelers are 2-6 ATS in the last eight games)
Seattle Seahawks at Detroit Lions. Marshawn Lynch managed 103 yards on the ground against the Niners D. The Hawks are 4-0 versus teams outside their division. However, Russell Wilson was unable to come up with big plays against San Francisco and will try to get back to it in the Silverdome against a thin secondary. The Seattle offense must gain more than the 251 total yards with 4.6 yards per play that they achieved in San Francisco. The Seahawks best hope until further notice remains Lynch. This week he is against a Lions run D giving up a surprising 123 yards per game over the last three.
The Lions offense is out of sync. The loss of WR Nate Burleson (broken leg) is not going to help, though Ryan Broyles stepped up admirably. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan needs to wake up and realize that Mikel Leshoure has finally joined his teammates on the field. 46 passing attempts? A refresher course on the difference between yards and points might be in order. Three red zone turnovers? Please.
Defensively, Ndamukong Suh now has a memory shot of exactly where the legal hit limit is in the NFL -- hopefully he will use it as reference.
Bottom line: Seattle can win if they control the clock and succeed on a few deep balls. Not terribly likely on the road, with a rookie QB getting his first taste of Suh, Avril and company.
Prediction: Lions by a field goal.
Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears. After going 1-5 out of the gate in 2012, the Richardsons have fired GM Marty Hurney. Um, you do know that a move here has no effect until next year, right? What matters this week is that starting CB Chris Gamble and starting LB Jon Beason have been placed on IR.
They ought to focus some of their ire on offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. If there's a master plan for this side of the ball, most of us can't see it. The team invested over $50 million in three rushers--and yet ranks 13th in running yards per game. Amidst the "sophomore slump" talk, Cam Newton passed for 233 yards and ran for 64 last week. It's not his production -- it's the overall in-game management.
Cutler has proven beyond a doubt that he is a tough dude -- no matter what he does with his face. His teammates have been unanimously and vocally behind him throughout, and they would know. Cutler is (one assumes) going to have a Novocain shot to the ribs that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, but he'll play. Eww. This may be a scoring defense, but the offense controlled the ball for almost 35 minutes on Monday night by alternating Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Keep it up.
Here's the kicker: The Bears have allowed less than ten points in the past three games by opposing offenses.
Prediction: Bears by nine.
Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs. Carson Palmer talked Dennis Allen into going for it on fourth-and-ten last week. Then he took it into the end zone himself. Probably a good idea since the "real" running backs have only managed 91 yards on average in the last three contests. One can be reasonably certain that this is not the scenario Palmer had in mind when he came onboard.
The Raiders secondary is allowing 245 yards per game and only 6.8 yards per completion these days, so Brady Quinn will have to earn it if he's to make a bid for the starting gig. Jamaal Charles will face a Silver and Black D allowing 3.3 yards per carry.
Raider RB Darren McFadden will be happy to note that the Chiefs D has surrendered almost 128 yards each week in the past three games.
This is a toss-up, but the Raiders have by far the better QB, so...
Prediction: Raiders by a field goal.
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys. Forget "beast mode," RGIII went full-on peacock Sunday, displaying his skills for all to see. Then Eli Manning decided enough was enough--and threw one of his seemingly effortless long-bomb basket passes to Victor Cruz. In double coverage. The G-men won. Cruz summed it up: "With our offense and Eli at the helm, we're never too worried."
One note of concern for New York is that Washington rookie RB Alfred Morris rolled up 120 yards on 22 carries. There might be hope for Cowboys RB Felix Jones in this game.
Dallas prevailed over Carolina last week by only five points. The way this season has been going, shouldn't "America's Team" have wrapped that up by halftime? They didn't and also lost LB Sean Lee for the year. The kindest word one can use to describe the 2012 Dallas Cowboys is "disorganized." Jason Garrett needs to relinquish play calling and focus on his job or he won't have a job.
Prediction: Giants by two or three.
New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos. NBC's Sunday Night Football wasted no time in deleting Ray Lewis from its Faith Hill montage. Wow. That's cold.
Both record-setting QBs are leading their teams to an average of 31 points. Drew Brees scored four more touchdowns last Sunday. Yawn. However, the Broncos defense should present a challenge for No. 9, especially if former Saints CB Tracy Porter can play (illness). Not to mention the fact that they'll need more rushing success to keep Peyton Manning off the gridiron. The Saints did attempt 26 runs last Sunday, but they only averaged 3.1 yards per carry and had only five rushing first downs. The return of coach Joe Vitt will probably give this team a dangerous lift in spirits.
Broncos star corner Champ Bailey needs to play better than he did versus the Chargers or Brees is going to embarrass him on national television. This D held up well in terms of conditioning after being on the field seemingly forever against the Chargers last Monday. They will need to do it again, since the Saints are capable of long, drawn-out scoring drives even when they have to do it with short passes.
Bottom line: If the Saints (allowing 26.7 yards per game over the past three weeks) defense doesn't have either a talent infusion or a personality/focus transplant, Peyton Manning will eat them alive. They'll probably get a couple of turnovers early while No. 18 feels them out--and then they'll be sorely tested.
Predictions: Broncos by a touchdown.
San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals. Frank Gore ran for 131 yards on only 16 carries at home and the team barely held off the Seattle Seahawks last Thursday night. The tough Seattle D finally began to bend in the third quarter under a "frankly" relentless rushing attack. Add in Smith's short-passing success (80 percent under five yards) and you see where this game plan will be going if Gore (ribs) can play. If not, Alex Smith will need to have more mid-level passing success as Kendall Hunter tries to carry the load. Smith has not done well with long passes since spraining his finger in Week 5.
In spite of their meltdown against the Giants, the Niners D still ranks second overall, while being first in passing yards and total yards allowed.
As for Arizona, revolving quarterbacks is never a good state of affairs, even when your third-string rusher does come up with 104 unexpected yards against a solid Minnesota defense. John Skelton might have succeeded, if the non-existent offensive line hadn't given up seven sacks. Andre Roberts ended up being the leading receiver against the Vikings after Larry Fitzgerald could find no breathing room. Even TE Rob Housler had more receiving yards than Fitzgerald. Who? See, that's not a good sign. To add insult to ineptitude, Jay Feely missed a kick and Patrick Peterson totaled seven return yards.
The following starters are questionable: RB/FB Anthony Sherman, TE Todd Heap, DB Greg Toler, LB Reggie Walker, Safety Kerry Rhodes. The team needs them all.
Prediction: Niners by a touchdown on the road.
While the NFL does rule, the earth, congratulations are in order to Major League Baseball for the inspired "Stand Up to Cancer" promotion in the World Series. Thousands of people, including players, managers, umpires, broadcasters and team management held up signs with the names of people in their lives who are fighting cancer. It was a powerful use of sports media in a social cause. Well done.
Current winning percentage: 68 percent when picking winners straight up - 58 percent on points.
*Statistics from nfl.com, espn.com, usatoday.com, NBC's Sunday Night Football, NFL Network's Gameday Final and Showtime's Inside the NFL
+Injuries from cbssports.com and usatoday.com