- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 10.
First ... Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans: For the moment, the Dolphins don't have a quarterback controversy. Their starter, Jay Fiedler, is slowed by a sprained medial collateral knee ligament. Brian Griese gets the start and will continue until told differently.
Sunday's visit to the Titans could be a barometer of how the Dolphins might finish the season. Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt is enticed by Griese's accurate arm and ability to make quick releases. In two starts (1-1), Griese completed 65.5 percent of his passes and has a 7.3 yards per attempt average.
Earlier this season, Fiedler, who helped lead the Dolphins to back-to-back 11-5 records in 2001 and 2002, was having difficulty stretching the field. Defenses would gang eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop Ricky Williams, so a few receivers would be open down field. For whatever reason, Fiedler missed too many of them.
Fiedler's completion percentage was a disappointing 56.9 and he had thrown eight interceptions, but the team's record was 4-2. Had his knee not been injuried, Griese might still be on the bench.
But a lot falls on Griese in this game. For one, the Titans are perhaps the Dolphins most difficult matchup. For one, the Dolphins have difficulties along their offensive line. The left tackle is Wade Smith, a promising young blocker but he's a rookie. The team is banged up from guard to guard. Todd Wade is solid at right tackle, but too many times, the pass protection is breaking down.
Remembering that Griese is the least mobile of the two quarterbacks, the matchup for the Dolphins against the Titans is a tough one. Can Smith hold back Jevon Kearse, who had a Pro Bowl caliber first half? Can the interior of the line hold back the power and aggression of Albert Haynesworth? And who's going to block Kevin Carter, who again is quietly having an excellent year at end and tackle?
Making things even more difficult is the crowd noise. The Titans have some of the loudest and smartest fans in football. They know how to yell at the right times to disrupt an offense.
Griese played a lot of big road games in loud situations as a Bronco. The problem that cost him his job in Denver is that he wasn't much of a fiery leader, and escaped town with slightly better than a .500 record.
The Dolphins' closing schedule is difficult. They face only two teams with losing records. Trailing the Patriots for the AFC East, the Dolphins can't worry in the least about December fades.
It's November. Their season is on the line. It's desperation time.
And 10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: It's amazing to think that this could be the Bucs defining moment in the season. They are 4-4, trailing the Panthers by two games in the NFC South. Lots of football may remain in the second half of the season, but all the Bucs will be fighting for if they lose this would be a wild-card spot. These are the times great teams step up, and as much as the Bucs look to be a great team, they can't squander this opportunity. The Panthers shocked the Bucs in Week 2 with a 12-9 overtime victory in Tampa Bay. In recent weeks, opponents have just run the ball straight at the Bucs aggressive defense and the strategy has worked. That's pretty much all the Panthers do, but complicating matters is Stephen Davis' ankle injury. To beat the Bucs, the Panthers need Davis and DeShaun Foster because no one expects Jake Delhomme to beat the Bucs or too many teams for that matter with his passing. Despite the 6-2 start, the Panthers are battling for respect. How angry can things be in the locker room when Panthers players hear they are three- or four-point underdogs in a home game against a team they beat by three points on the road? The Bucs come in with a banged up offensive line, which may be hard to contain the Panthers aggressive front four.
9. Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers: Both teams are starting to get back that playoff swagger. It's thumbs up for both teams. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is having more fun in the pass game now that his right thumb has the tape removed and he's able to grip the ball better. Brett Favre proved he could win a domed game against the Vikings even though he had a hairline fracture in his right thumb. It's a classic Monday night matchup. While the head coaches are similar, the styles of the team are so different. Andy Reid of the Eagles and Mike Sherman of the Packers are West Coast offense guys who realize the value of the running game. Sherman changed his philosophy once he realized the talents of halfback Ahman Green. Reid was a reluctant convert. His offense was so bad early in the season because the passing game was going nowhere. Reid loves calling pass plays, but since the second week of the season, he's relied on the running attack more than ever. Where these teams are different is the defenses. The Eagles love to blitz and pressure quarterbacks, which may not be the best thing to do against Favre. The Packers aggressively use a quick group of linebackers, but they have injuries and inconsistencies along the defensive line and have had troubles in their secondary. The Packers rank 30th on defense, giving up 357.9 yards and 24.1 points a game. The Eagles offense is averaging only 17.8 points a game.
8. Baltimore Ravens at St. Louis Rams: Mike Martz is trying to look at last Sunday's 30-10 loss in San Francisco as a mulligan. And why not? Circumstances allowed the 49ers to get up 14-3 in the first quarter, and the Rams have a lot of young players on offense who didn't handle the 49ers blitz very well. Marc Bulger was pressured and couldn't get the offense going consistently. What's interesting was the reaction after the game. Unlike a year ago when the Rams were panicky during disasters, the Rams were calm. They know their tough games are at home, and their easy games are on the road. A 12-win season is within reach as long as they take care of business at home. The great part of this matchup is the head coaches. Brian Billick and Martz are two of the best offensive minds in the sport. Martz has his scoring machine going. His offense is averaging 374 points a game and they are scoring 26.6. The Ravens can only play low-scoring games until Kyle Boller grows up as a starting quarterback. He's getting better each week, but the Ravens have to function around a two-tight end, conservative set that features Jamal Lewis' running. The Ravens defense can't allow a high-scoring game because the Ravens offense may have a hard time keeping up. Adding to the Ravens problems is the return of Rams halfback Marshall Faulk to the starting lineup.
7. Buffalo Bills at Dallas Cowboys: As expected, the stats are settling. Remember a couple of weeks ago when the Cowboys came off their easy schedule and ranked among the league's best offenses. A tougher schedule has them falling to 10th even though they've averaged a respectable 341.5 yards a game. Quincy Carter has been good, but he wasn't going to revolutionize NFL offenses. Here's where things get interesting for the Cowboys. It's been seven weeks since the Cowboys bye. Bill Parcells likes to keep a neat, tidy small injury list by making his players feel as though they weren't hurt. Well, the offensive line is hurting. Larry Allen is all banged up. Ryan Young has a chronically banged up knee. Parcells had to make a change at center because of injury. The Bills come out of the bye week fresh and desperate. Eric Moulds is back, but that may not help much because the Cowboys are hard to pass against. Drew Bledsoe needs to buy passing time to throw against the Cowboys and not get sacked. If he can have a clean game without many turnovers, the Bills have a chance. On paper heading into the season, the Bills looked like the better team. Well, it's time to prove it because Parcells has this Cowboys machine humming. He's making so much more out of less, but this game could be a tough one.
6. Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs: It's no surprise Butch Davis went back to Kelly Holcomb as his starting quarterback now that Holcomb looks more mobile on his broken leg. All those home losses over the past few years by Tim Couch has apparently affected the coach's confidence in Couch. He gets yanked a lot quicker than Holcomb. The more baffling decision was for the Browns to bench their leading receiver, Kevin Johnson, who had 40 catches before the bye. The reason was his blocking down field. Well, William Green is suspended for this game for an alleged DUI and marijuana possession. Who is Andre Davis going to be blocking for down field? If anything, the Browns will need more of a passing game trying to outscore the Chiefs, the league's only undefeated team. On top of that, the Browns line is a shambles because of injuries. They may have a better interior of the line if center Jeff Faine and guard Shaun O'Hara come back from knee injuries following the bye week. But left tackle Barry Stokes is doubtful with an ankle.
5. Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: Rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich was responsible for 10 turnovers in his past three starts, and that can't continue. Peyton Manning can convert turnovers into points pretty quickly, so the Jaguars have to worry about letting the game get out of hand early. It's been a tough week for Manning. The publicity from a lawsuit dating back to his days at Tennessee has been a distraction. Still, he's coming off a big win at Miami and has to make sure the offense isn't overconfident going against a 1-7 division foe. The Colts know they can't afford to lose winnable games because they need to stay ahead of the Titans in the AFC South race. They have to play in Nashville on Dec. 7, and that task will be difficult. What's been amazing is that the Colts have some of their wildest games on the road. They blew out New Orleans. They had the incredible three-touchdown comeback against the Bucs in Tampa. They beat the Dolphins and Browns. What Manning and the Colts need is an easy game.
4. New York Jets at Oakland Raiders: The Jets must feel as though they are part of the AFC West. Every year, they have to fly across country to play the Raiders. They seem to have a regular date in the playoffs in Oakland. Not anymore. The Jets are just scrambling for respectability at 2-6. And the Raiders? Well, they just stink right now. From playoffs to 2-6 teams, the Jets look like the better bet in this one. Chad Pennington is getting more comfortable by the week. Curtis Martin is running the ball better and with more confidence. Santana Moss has emerged as the team's go-to receiver. As for the Raiders, they haven't played a good game all year. Even some of their practices in the preseason were sloppy. They are down to Rick Mirer and Rob Johnson at quarterback, and Charles Woodson has been tougher on coach Bill Callahan than any Bay Area columnist. Good thing Callahan talked to Woodson on Wednesday. Callahan called it a good talk. He also called the Lions a very good team. Give me a break.
3. Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins: Well, the Ol' Ball Coach is reeling. The Redskins are on a four-game losing streak, but Steve Spurrier isn't going to vary from his Fun n' Gun offense. Unfortunately for the Redskins, no one is having fun, and the gun is being pointed at Spurrier's job to get this team moving. Still, Spurrier is too stubborn to add check down plays and hot reads to help Patrick Ramsey save himself from his weekly beating. Now, the Redskins go against one of their former defensive coordinators, Ray Rhodes, who would love to make the Gun backfire and make owner Dan Snyder regret letting him out of the organization. The Seahawks have to start winning some road games. They have three more easy home games and should get to nine wins. But if they want to be a playoff team and get into double-digits, they need to steal a win on the road. They are 5-0 at home, 1-2 on the road.
2. Arizona Cardinals at Pittsburgh Steelers: There is life in the desert. Dave McGinnis is coming off a two-game winning streak and Bill Bidwell just spent $8 million of cap room signing left tackle L.J. Shelton and five backups. But they face an angry Steelers team. Bill Cowher benched cornerback Dewayne Washington, but he could have done the same to Chad Scott. Both cornerbacks are having terrible years. Cowher hasn't panicked despite a 2-6 start. They face a 23-41 closing schedule and know they could start a second-half run starting with this game. This is an important game for quarterback Tommy Maddox, who needs to have something going with the passing offense. A loss to the Cardinals will bury the Steelers in last place, but the AFC North race is still wide open. The Steelers just have to enter the race at some point.
1. Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions: Bears fans, don't too jacked up. The two-game winning streak was against the Lions and Chargers. But there is no doubt that the Bears are playing with some confidence. Chris Chandler is more stable at the quarterback position than Kordell Stewart, who will be the backup this week. Anthony Thomas is running the confidence he had back in his rookie season. Some of the young draft choices on defense are playing some good ball. But losing to the Lions would bring back the depression of the first six games. The Lions got a break because the Raiders gave them a gift last week. The Lions don't have a running game, which should give the Bears a huge advantage. But don't forget, these are two teams fighting for draft choice position next April.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
4dEric D. Williams
4dEric D. Williams
4dMel Kiper Jr.