NFL Preview: Eagles host key NFC East game
By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
It's only Week 8, yet the future of one contender/pretender could be decided in the NFC East. The loser of Dallas' visit to Philadelphia will be at a distinct disadvantage in the wide-open division. And as the Cowboys and Eagles, 3½-point favorites, have proven this season, both are capable of falling apart.
Yet each team feels it has turned a corner. Philly (2-4) broke a four-game slide by beating Washington, then healed up during its bye week. Dallas (3-3) just as easily could be 6-0 if it could figure out how to protect a late lead.
"We believe we're a good team," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "But we've got to go do it because .500 is not going to cut it. You've got to continue to get better."
Dallas surely got better with its running game last week as DeMarco Murray sped to a franchise-record 253 yards rushing, second only to Adrian Peterson's 296 among rookies in NFL history.
"The best teams peak at the right time. That's what we need to do," Witten added.
The Cowboys also have the best run defense in the league, and guess who has the top rushing offense. Yep, the Eagles, thanks greatly to Michael Vick's unparalleled maneuverability at quarterback.
All of which makes for a spicy confrontation that could have long-term effects on the division.
"It's a big game for us. Each team (knows) what's at stake this time," Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "It's going to be one of those long, drawn-out, beat-down games. We've got to go up there and get a win."
Off this weekend are Atlanta (4-3), Chicago (4-3), Green Bay (7-0), Oakland (4-3), Tampa Bay (4-3) and the New York Jets (4-3).
Minnesota (1-6) at Carolina (2-5)
(PANTHERS FAVORED BY 3½)
A "veteran" rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, against a newbie rookie, Christian Ponder.
Newton has been tearing up the NFL, on pace for several rookie records and helping the Panthers look respectable even while occupying the bottom of the NFC South. He led them past the Redskins last Sunday and has seven TDs rushing already. That ranks second in the league and ties the full-season rookie mark (since the 1970 merger) set by Vince Young in 2006.
Ponder made a nice starting debut in a loss to Green Bay, never looking overmatched -- just as Newton has not been all season. He threw for two TDs and led the Vikings to a season-high 435 yards total offense.
Miami (0-6) at N.Y. Giants (4-2)
(GIANTS FAVORED BY 10)
The Dolphins aren't in any better shape on this trip to the New Jersey Meadowlands than they were two weeks ago, when they fell to the Jets. In fact, they probably are worse off following that late collapse against Denver.
Expecting Miami to end its slide against the rested Giants, who likely get back several key players, especially DE Justin Tuck and RB Brandon Jacobs, is a reach.
New York leads the NFC East and given the Redskins' difficult game Sunday and the Cowboys visiting Philadelphia, the Giants could pick up some ground with a win.
Washington (3-3) vs. Buffalo (4-2) (At Toronto)
(BILLS FAVORED BY 6)
The Bills' "home" game in Canada is not a welcomed occasion for safety George Wilson.
"The fan support in Toronto is a night-and-day difference from what we have in Buffalo," he said. "For the most part, it's a show. You see just as many jerseys for the opposing teams as you do the Bills. They cheer for any big play regardless of whichever team makes it."
Buffalo has made a lot more big plays than Washington, which has lost two straight, made a quarterback change from Rex Grossman to John Beck, and is severely banged-up.
Even ironman linebacker London Fletcher is in shaky shape. Fletcher has never missed a game in his 14-year NFL career, with a streak of 214 straight appearances, but is bothered by a hamstring problem.
Meanwhile, the Bills come off a bye hoping to extend their dominance of the Skins to six straight.
Sounds like they'd prefer to try at Ralph Wilson Stadium, not the Rogers Centre.
New England (5-1) at Pittsburgh (5-2)
(PATRIOTS FAVORED BY 3)
One of the NFL's juiciest matchups for more than a decade, although it's been decidedly one-sided in favor of Tom Brady and company.
"Some of our greatest games that we've ever played have been against them," Brady said.
Brady is 6-1 against the Steelers, with 14 touchdown passes, three interceptions and a 104.8 passer rating. Pittsburgh's blitzes and shifting schemes don't confuse the two-time league MVP, and Ben Roethlisberger tends to struggle against Bill Belichick's defense.
However, the current New England defense is vulnerable, which could lead to a shootout if Brady's mastery over the Steel Curtain continues.
"As the league evolves and you've got to keep up with teams like New England scoring 60 points a game," Roethlisberger said, "it's part of the evolution."
Cleveland (3-3) at San Francisco (5-1)
(49ERS FAVORED BY 8½)
Following their third straight road win, the last thing the Niners needed was a bye. Still, coach Jim Harbaugh will keep the fires burning, even if it means back-slapping an assistant coach too hard.
San Francisco is in an enviable position if it can take advantage of a relatively easy schedule that could yield a division crown by Thanksgiving. It needs to keep dominating on the ground (second against the rush, sixth running the ball) and cherishing the ball -- only six giveaways, second in the league behind the Lions' five.
Cleveland has won three in a row in the series but must find some offense. Only winless Miami and St. Louis have scored fewer points among teams that have played six games.
Detroit (5-2) at Denver (2-4)
(LIONS FAVORED BY 3)
Things suddenly aren't motoring along so well in Motown. The Lions lost two straight at Ford Field, tight games in which the opponent made the key plays. Now they head to Denver, where Tebowmania has the city 8 miles high.
Tebow came up with all the big plays down the stretch -- actually the last six minutes of regulation -- after flopping for much of the day in Miami. But he produced a victory, snapping the Broncos' three-game slide, and made this matchup more interesting.
The Broncos could be in decent shape if Lions QB Matthew Stafford (right ankle) and RB Jahvid Best (concussion) are limited or absent.
Arizona (1-5) at Baltimore (4-2)
(RAVENS FAVORED BY 13)
The Ravens come off a hideous offensive performance -- Jacksonville deserves credit for its defensive play in that game, but Ray Rice got only eight carries -- and now faces a team that ranks 28th against the pass. Arizona has yielded the third-most points among teams that have played six games, and isn't more efficient on offense. Indeed, the Cardinals are minus-5 in turnover margin and the Ravens are plus-4.
Expect Rice to be heavily involved for Baltimore this time.
New Orleans (5-2) at St. Louis (0-6)
(SAINTS FAVORED BY 13½)
Even at full strength, something the Rams haven't enjoyed all season, this might be a mismatch. Now, with Sam Bradford nursing a high left ankle sprain, adding to all of St. Louis' injury woes, the Saints might go for another 62 points.
Then again, New Orleans will want to get out of St. Loo healthy and with another win before facing consecutive games against division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta. So maybe Drew Brees and the boys get only 42 points.
Jacksonville (2-5) at Houston (4-3)
(TEXANS FAVORED BY 9½)
Coming off their upset of the Ravens, the Jaguars present a defensive challenge -- if not much else -- to the Texans, who won a statement game in Nashville last Sunday. Houston was spiraling and ravaged by injuries before it got well in Music City to take control of the weak AFC South.
"I felt very strongly that this would be a good, solid defense for us this year, and we're nearing the midway point, and I think that it's obvious that it is and has been, and we're going to need to be even better through the second half of the season," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said.
Houston hopes to get star WR Andre Johnson back, but the key could be the running game. Arian Foster and Ben Tate both rushed for more than 100 yards against the Titans, and Foster added 119 yards receiving while scoring three times in a showing reminiscent of his breakout 2010 season.
Cincinnati (4-2) at Seattle (2-4)
(BENGALS FAVORED BY 3)
A Bengals victory and defeats by Baltimore and Pittsburgh would lift Cincinnati into a tie for the AFC North lead -- heady territory for a rebuilding franchise.
Cincinnati has won three straight and its defense ranks second in yardage allowed, the main reason for the overall improvement. Its seven fumble recoveries rank second overall and its 14 sacks bode poorly for Seattle, whether Tarvaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst is the quarterback. The Seahawks have given up 23 sacks, tied with the Rams for the most surrendered.
Indianapolis (0-7) at Tennessee (3-3)
(TITANS FAVORED BY 8½)
Both teams would like to erase Oct. 23 from their calendars. Tennessee was routed 41-7 at home by Houston, yet that was 21 points better than the performance the Colts provided in New Orleans, a 62-7 gouging.
Until last week, Indy seemed to be getting closer to a win, and the Titans had the look of a contender. Each of them needs to consider those embarrassments a one-week issue and not let the negativism fester.
Indianapolis has won five in a row against Tennessee. Of course, some guy named Peyton was on the field for those games.
San Diego (4-2) at Kansas City (3-3) (Monday Night)
(CHARGERS FAVORED BY 3½)
When October began, the Chiefs were a mess, 0-3, stagnant on offense, leaky on defense and beaten up all over. Coach Todd Haley found the right spark, though -- helped by a sideline shouting match with quarterback Matt Cassel in the team's first victory, at the Minnesota Vikings.
Kansas City has won three straight and by beating the enigmatic Chargers at Arrowhead, the Chiefs will be tied atop the AFC West Division with San Diego and the idle Oakland Raiders.
The Chargers showed why they come up short in the championship chase despite all their talent by blowing a 21-10 lead at the New York Jets last weekend.