All eyes will be on Lincoln Financial Field in Philly in Week 9 as QB Tony Romo lead the Dallas Cowboys against the Philadelphia Eagles on NBC Sunday Night Football
The second half of the 2009 NFL Season is here and now the “real” fun begins as teams confirm their status as a “Contender” or “Pretender”. Many people around the NFL, including yours truly, are excited about the second half of the season kicking off as almost all bye weeks are over (Week 9 — Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, St. Louis, Minnesota, NY Jets and Week 10 — NY Giants, Houston). And the games each week have a heightened level of significance in terms of teams jockeying for division titles and the league’s coveted 12 playoff berths. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said of starting the second half of the 2009 season, “It’s a new season, we have a nine-game schedule and we open with Baltimore.”
The NFL as usual is parity-laden this time of the year as there are 15 teams above .500 and 12 teams below the .500 mark. But there is still a lot of sorting out left to do with the group of 12 teams currently residing in the league’s “Any Given Sunday” middle with records ranging from 5-3 to 3-4 (Texans (5-3), Giants (5-3), Jets (4-4), Ravens (4-3), Chargers (4-3), Falcons (4-3), Bears (4-3), Cardinals (4-3), Niners (3-4), Dolphins (3-4), Panthers (3-4), and Jaguars (3-4). In the coming weeks, the Stuck in the Middle” teams will either join the playoff hunt or fall back which always is the fun part of the third quarter of the NFL season. But nothing in the NFL is predictable and there is a lot most football to be played. Since 1990, when the current 12-team playoff format was adopted, 47 teams (20.6 percent of the 228 playoff clubs) have advanced to the postseason after starting the season with a .500 or worse record after eight games.
Even the NFL’s two undefeated teams, the New Orleans Saints (7-0) and Indianapolis Colts (7-0), know that nothing is guaranteed in today’s NFL and that they better put away any thoughts of catching the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins and concentrate on their opponents for this week – both have tough divisional battles Saints-Panthers and Colts-Texans. The Colts are 7-0 for the fourth time in the past five seasons, but they begin a stretch that will see them play teams that are a combined 19-11 (.633) over the next four games. Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said of his team’s record and where they currently stand, “We know that 7-0 guarantees us nothing, we’ve gotten farther than this in the past and came out with nothing. We just want to stay dialed in and continue to win games.”
The factor that everyone hopes will lead to being in the playoff hunt come late December is “adjustments”. The NFL is a copycat league where teams can catch-up quickly and adjustments are the only way to stay ahead of the pack and combat falling behind. With only eight more weeks of action after this week, it is time for the “good” coaches to make the adjustments necessary to get their teams back on track or keeping them at the top. Remember early season results are important (don’t want to get too far behind), but good coaches realize that they want their team peaking in the championship months of November and December.
The halfway point of the season also seems like a good time to start talking about the NFL’s 8 divisional races. Entering Week 9, seven teams that did not win their division in 2008 either were at the top or tied for first place in their division. If this pattern holds true, the 2009 season will break the NFL record for new division winners since realignment in 2002 (Six new division winners in 2003 and 2008).
Here’s the current division breakdown:
NFC East — 2008 Champion was the NY Giants and this season the Eagles and Cowboys have a ½ game lead over the Giants.
NFC West– 2008 Champion was the Arizona Cardinals and this season the Cardinals have a 1-game lead over the Giants.
NFC South– 2008 Champion was the Carolina Panthers and this season the New Orleans Saints have a 3-game lead over the Falcons.
NFC North– 2008 Champion was the Minnesota Vikings and this season the Vikings have a 2 ½ game lead over the Packers and Bears
AFC East– 2008 Champion was the Miami Dolphins and this season the New England Patriots have a 1 ½ game lead over the New Jets.
AFC West– 2008 Champion was the San Diego Chargers and this season the Denver Broncos have a 2-game lead over the Chargers.
AFC South– 2008 Champion was the Tennessee Titans and this season the Indianapolis Colts have a 1 ½ game lead over the Houston Texans.
AFC North– 2008 Champion was the Pittsburgh Steelers and this season the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have a 1-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens.
Some of the more compelling storylines that we will be following in the NFL’s second half include:
- Can either the New Orleans Saints or Indianapolis Colts go undefeated for the entire 2009 season
- Can the Vikings and veteran quarterback Brett Favre continue their magic carpet ride into the playoffs
- Are the Patriots and Steelers truly back after producing winning streaks going into their recent bye weeks?
- Could it be possible that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will not win a game in 2009 and match the 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16)
- Which coach currently on the hot seat (Browns Eric Mangini, Redskins Jim Zorn, Raiders Tom Cable, Bills Dick Jauron, Panthers John Fox and others) will be the first one issued their pink slip
After so many weeks containing five or more blowouts, let’s hope that Week 9’s many great match-ups live up to their hype.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals – The Ravens (4-3) will visit the Bengals (4-3) in a matchup between two fighting to be near the top of the AFC North. The Ravens are looking for revenge from a Week 5 home loss to the Bengals so don’t expect many pleasantries. To make matters worse, Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco sent the Ravens secondary and linebackers some gift baskets of deodorant sticks in anticipation of this week’s game (i.e. No. 85 is saying the Ravens’ D stinks). Ochocinco better be careful as the Ravens showed last week against the Broncos (30-7 victory) that they mean business after a much-needed bye.
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans – In what looks like a primo AFC South battle, the Texans –- have won three games in a row — will look to get to a 6-3 record for the first time their franchise’s history and get some respect around the NFL. Quite frankly, this game could make or break the Texans’ season as they try to make the jump from a perennial 8-8 squad to being a playoff contender. However the task of beating the Colts is daunting one as Indianapolis has now won 16 consecutive regular season games and can tie the 1933-34 Chicago Bears for the third-longest streak in NFL history with a win this Sunday. Of this Sunday’s matchup Colts QB Peyton Manning said, “We’re heading into the teeth of our schedule”. Manning will also be shooting for two decade milestones and NFL firsts in the game — 19 passing yards from 40,000 passing yards and 4 TDs from 300 touchdown passes. Also watch for Colts DE Dwight Freeney who has recorded a sack in 7 consecutive games this season — needs one sack on to tie teammate Robert Mathis’ start of season record (8) from 2005.
San Diego Chargers at New York Giants – Remember the 2004 NFL Draft…well I know the Chargers and Giants do. In April of 2004, the Giants and Chargers swapped quarterbacks Eli Manning (foot) and Philip Rivers in a trade that will forever link the two young passers. Rivers and the Chargers are looking to continue their recent found winning ways. While Manning’s team is trying to end an ugly 3-game losing streak that has saw them slip from 5-0 start to second place in the NFL East. I am sure the Chargers will attack a beleaguered Giants’ secondary that allowed four plays over 40 yards or more last week against the Eagles. The will need to get pressure from their D-line (when DE Justin Tuck records a sack, the Giants are 15-3) and hope for the healthy return of DL Chris Canty, CB Aaron Ross and LB Michael Boley or could be a long day. The G-Men will need to keep an eye on Chargers TE Antonio Gates who has an NFL leading 53 TDs since 2002. The Giants have won five straight vs. the AFC — including Super Bowl XLII – but this is a tough assignment.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos – In the AFC’s marquee match-up of the week, the defending champion Steelers, coming off a bye, will look to extend their winning streak to five consecutive games against the upstart Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. The entire country will be watching as these two division leaders clash at INVESCO Field. One thing is for certain, expect some serious defense in this game as the Broncos are rated No.1 in the NFL in terms of yardage allowed (266.7) and have allowed an average of just 13.7 points per game. The Steelers are not far behind with an average of 291 yards allowed and only 23.8 points per game. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of his unit, “I think we have the potential to be a very, very good defense.” The Broncos will try to protect quarterback Kyle Orton by running their backs Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter. While the Steelers may allow QB Ben Roethlisberger to go no-huddle which gave the Broncos fits in their first loss of the season last week in Baltimore. Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels said of the match-up after losing first time last week, “You can find out just as much about your team through the adversity of a loss as you can through six wins, now we’ve got to get ready to play against a really good team in Pittsburgh.”
Lloyd’s Leftovers for Week 9
Riggo has a mouthful for the Redskins front office — John Riggins, a hall of fame and former Super Bowl MVP for Washington Redskins, took his battle with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to the big stage. Appearing on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL”, the talkative former NFL workhorse back let Snyder have it with both guns blazing. Getting quite personal, Riggins said of the Redskins management, “I’ve been asked this question a lot, when they say do you have an ax to grind…Maybe that’s the case. But truthfully I do have an ax to grind and I just realized I have been a little bit disingenuous. But this is a bad guy that owns this team. I’ll just tell you that upfront. Bad Guy! And if the commissioner is worried about potential new owners and saying some of these guys shouldn’t apply, he might want to police his own inside guys.” Somehow I don’t see this little tiff going away anytime soon.
Titans’ running back pulls out his crystal ball – Titans RB Chris Johnson feeling real good about his team’s first victory last week over the Jacksonville Jaguars predicted that the Titans (1-6) could run the table to end the season. Johnson said, “We really believe like we can, like we started off 10-0 last year”. Fresh off a franchise record 228-yard game against the Jags, Johnson added “Before we played Jacksonville, we sat down and was like we really feel like we can go 10-0 in these last 10 games”. I will let you decide about Tennessee’s chances and here is the rest of the Titans’ schedule: at 49ers, vs. Bills, at Texans, vs. Cardinals, at Colts, vs. Rams, vs. Dolphins, vs. Chargers, at Seahawks.
The Wildcat returns to it’s NFL birthplace – I know the Patriots haven’t forgotten, but it was in Week 3 of the 2008 season that the Dolphins unleashed the much-talked about ‘Wildcat’ formation on the NFL. Heady Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning and his quarterbacks coach David Lee surprised the Patriots and the entire NFL by running a form of single-wing in a 38-13 road upset in Foxborough. The ‘Phins churned out 216 rushing yards and RB Ronnie Brown (17 rushes for 117 yards and 4 TD’s) was spectacular to say the least as a part-time quarterback. The former Auburn star set a Dolphins franchise record by running for four touchdowns and even threw a perfect left-handed 19-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Fassano. The win stopped the Patriots’ 21-game regular season consecutive win streak and the NFL has never been the same with almost every team in league looking to run a version of the “Wildcat”. In Week 9, look for the Patriots to load the box with their safeties (Brandon Merriweather and Brandon McGowan) in an attempt to stop the Dolphins vaunted running game (153.4 yards per game) and of course the Wildcat formation.
Sustained Success — The 2008 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers have 99 wins since the start of the 2000 season. With a victory in Denver on Monday night, the Steelers can become the third team this decade with 100 regular-season wins, joining the Indianapolis Colts (108) and New England Patriots (107). The Philadelphia Eagles are not far behind from the 100-win mark for this decade as they have 97 wins. The Colts and Patriots also are within striking distance of the all-time win mark for a decade held by the San Francisco 49ers of the 1990s (113).
Colts hit hard by the injury bug — If the Indianapolis Colts are going to improve upon their current 16-game winning streak and undefeated start (7-0), they will need to find some gems on their depth chart. This season injuries have ravaged the Colts and this week was no different as CB Kelvin Hayden (knee – 4 weeks), CB Marlin Jackson (ACL – season), and safety Bob Sanders (elbow – season) were lost for significant amounts of time. Some bigger names listed as either “Out” or “Questionable” are Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin (ankle), Falcons WR Roddy White (knee), Chargers C Nick Hardwick (ankle), Lions WR Calvin Johnson (knee), Donald Driver (stinger), Eagles LB Chris Gocong (quad, hamstring), Patriots RB Sammy Morris (knee), Bears WR Devin Hester (ankle), Ravens DT Haloti Ngata (ankle), Panthers WR Muhsin Muhammed (knee), Eagles WR Kevin Curtis (knee), Bucs WR Antonio Bryant (knee), Colts K Adam Vinatieri (right knee), Patriots DE Jarvis Green (knee), Dolphins LB Channing Crowder (shoulder) and Redskins P Hunter Smith (right groin).
Big Plays are prevalent in the NFL this season — There have been 81 touchdowns of at least 50 yards scored this season. That is the most through the first eight weeks of a season since 1970. The previous high was 80 touchdowns of 50+ yards scored in 1998.
Veteran is a good luck charm — New England has won 24 consecutive regular season games with recently re-signed veteran LB Junior Seau on their roster.
NFL Week 9 – Featured Game
Dallas Cowboys (5-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-2), 8:00 PM ET (NBC)
Broadcast Team: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, and Andrea Kremer (Field reporter)
NBC’s Sunday Night Football will be alive as one of the biggest rivalries in the NFL will be showcased this week. To die-hard Eagles fans there are only really two games a year that really matter and both of them are against the hated Dallas Cowboys. To make things even more interesting, this year’s first battle between these two bitter rivals is for first place in the NFC East. NBC football analyst Tony Dungy said of the match-up, “Philadelphia and Dallas are playing great in all three phases it’s setting up a big showdown game – with first place in the NFC East on the line – on Sunday night.” Both the Cowboys enter the game riding win streaks — Cowboys have won three consecutive games and the Eagles have a two game winning streak themselves. The last time these two teams met in Week 17 of the 2008 season, the Eagles trounced the Cowboys 44-6 at Lincoln Financial Field to knock Dallas from the playoff race.
Expect there to be plenty of offensive fireworks as both teams have several big play threats – Cowboys ranked 2nd in NFL with an average of 411.1 yards per game and the Eagles are not far behind averaging 344.4 yards. The Cowboys have been led by quarterback Tony Romo (won 12 consecutive November starts) and emerging receiver Miles Austin (26 catches for 563 yards, 21.7 ypc average and 6 TDs) have scored 101 points (33.7 per game) throughout the 2009 season, but especially during their recent 3-game winning streak. Romo surely will be looking to hit his favorite target TE Jason Witten (37 receptions for 348 yards, and 1 TD) over the middle as tight ends from the Bucs’ Kellen Winslow to the Raiders’ Zach Miller have torched the Eagles in coverage. It will be up new Eagles MLB Will Witherspoon and FS Sean Jones to keep Witten in check or it maybe a long day for Sean McDermott’s defense. Also watch for the Cowboys to run the football with their three-headed backfield (Tashard Choice, Felix Jones, and Marion Barber) to slowdown the Eagles blitz-happy defense (23 sacks). Conversely the Eagles have gone from a methodical team that moved the chain with short secure passes to a unit that is a quick strike big play team –four touchdowns of 40 yards or more in Week 8 win over the Giants.
Last week, the Eagles scored 40 points in a 23-point victory over the New York Giants, which was the team’s largest margin of victory over the Giants since 1996. In Philadelphia’s five wins this season, the team has averaged 34.4 points per game. The Eagles offense will look for returning RB Brian Westbrook (concussion) to help quarterback Donovan McNabb (80-133, 1008 yards, 9 TDs, 1 INT, and a 103.2 rating) and emerging young players RB LeSean McCoy, WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Brent Celek. However any offensive talk for the Eagles will start and end with number one threat WR/PR DeSean Jackson (will be shadowed by Cowboys former Pro Bowl corner Terrence Newman). The former 2nd rounder from Cal has scored six touchdowns of at least 50 yards this year, becoming just the second player in NFL history – Pro Football Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch (1951) – to score six 50-yard touchdowns in the first seven games of a season. Jackson said of his feat, “I’ve just been put in some great positions to score long touchdowns”. The charismatic and borderline cocky playmaker added, “Whatever we need to do to make it work, that’s what we’re going to do. I want to keep winning, keep making plays and hopefully make it to the Super Bowl.”
On defense, the Eagles are ranked 10th against the pass and 12th against the run, but they are always looking for the turnover. The Eagles are third in the NFL with 14 INTs plus they currently sport a +12 turnover ratio (2nd in the NFL). Pressure from the Eagles’ D-line led by former Pro Bowl pass rusher Trent Cole (6.5 sacks) has led to Pro Bowl corner Asante Samuel (5 INTs) making big plays. The Cowboys defense also is predicated on pressure (LB DeMarcus Ware – 5 sacks in ’09) which has helped them stop the run (ranked 13th in the NFL), but also has left Dallas susceptible to big plays in their secondary. Other than Newman, the other members in Dallas’ secondary have had a lot of problems in coverage, especially safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Ken Hamlin.
As always injuries will be a big part of this game as the Cowboys’ injury list includes: CB Allen Rossum (hamstring – out), RB Marion Barber (thumb), DT Jay Ratliff (knee), S Gerald Sensabaugh (thumb), and LB DeMarcus Ware (foot). Conversely the Eagles will be missing WR Kevin Curtis (knee) and most likely LB Chris Gocong (quadricep, hamstring) with other players on their injury list like DE Victor Abiamiri (knee), DT Brodrick Bunkley (knee), DE Chris Clemons (shoulder, elbow), G Nick Cole (knee), S Macho Harris (ankle), DE Darren Howard (ankle), and CB Dimitri Patterson (quadricep, hand).
LV’s Pick: – Watch for special teams in this game as Cowboys returnman Patrick Crayton has been playing very well of late — had an 82-yard punt return touchdown last week to become the 2nd Cowboy with punt return for a touchdown in consecutive games (“Bullet” Bob Hayes in 1968). And Eagles kicker David Akers’ leg is looking stronger than ever (61 points – 3rd in NFC and 13-16 FGs). In picking this game there are some trends to keep in mind. Since 2004, each team has won four games in this series. But lately the Eagles have been on top, winning four of the past six meetings and 14 of the last 20 games in this series. Even though the Cowboys ead the overall series, (55-44 including the playoffs), expect the Eagles and McNabb (won 11 of last 16 starts against Dallas) to rise to the occasion of playing on National TV – Eagles 31, Cowboys 28
NFL Week 9
SUN, November 8
Washington at Atlanta 1:00 PM (FOX)
Arizona at Chicago 1:00 PM (FOX)
Baltimore at Cincinnati 1:00 PM (CBS)
Houston at Indianapolis 1:00 PM (CBS)
Miami at New England 1:00 PM (CBS)
Green Bay at Tampa Bay 1:00 PM (FOX)
Kansas City at Jacksonville 1:00 PM (CBS)
Detroit at Seattle 4:05 PM (FOX)
Carolina at New Orleans 4:05 PM (FOX)
San Diego at NY Giants 4:15 PM (CBS)
Tennessee at San Francisco 4:15 PM (CBS)
Dallas at Philadelphia 8:20 PM (NBC)
MON, November 9
Pittsburgh at Denver 8:30 PM (ESPN)
Bye: Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, St. Louis, Minnesota, NY Jets
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)