- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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For one, it's great just to have a midseason that is a true midseason.
Because of the way the bye weeks were set up this season, every team in the NFL has played eight games at this point. To make flexible scheduling work, the NFL had to schedule all of the bye weeks from Week 3 to Week 9. That caused a few weeks in which six teams were idle, but nobody seemed to notice. With a true midseason, trends are more evident. For example, 22 running backs have 500 or more yards, which could mean a banner year for 1,000-yard runners.
But this story is about the schedule. Week 10 gets things off to a fast start with what could be the biggest game of the second half when the Giants host the Bears Sunday night. The Bears are 7-1 and have a three-game lead in the NFC North. The Giants are 6-2 with a two-game lead in the competitive NFC East. Arguably, they are the top two seeds in the NFC after the halfway mark of the season. This game could decide who ends up with home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Tom Coughlin turned the Giants' season around during their Week 4 bye. The Giants were coming off a bitter loss to the Seahawks, and players -- most notably Jeremy Shockey -- were grousing about the coaching. Coughlin simplified things on offense and defense. The offense went back to using the run to set up the pass. Tiki Barber, in his final regular season before retiring, has responded with a league-leading 830 yards, 605 of them coming in the last five games. The defense has survived injuries, concentrating more on execution after a 1-2 start.
The Bears were the NFC's first-half darlings. With an easy schedule (their opponents' combined record is 23-41) and a fast start, thoughts of an unbeaten season emerged, until they lost to the Dolphins Sunday.
But things get tougher for the Bears in the second half. They have five games against teams with records of .500 or better, starting Sunday against the Giants. In two of the Bears' last three games, Rex Grossman has struggled. In games against the Cardinals and Dolphins, Grossman ran into problems with aggressive defenses and confusing coverage packages, throwing seven interceptions in those two games.
The Giants watched the tapes. They can see what has worked against the Bears. But the Giants are a banged-up defense. With Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck hurt, the Giants might have difficulty generating a pass rush.
The Giants-Bears game should be a great way to start the second half.
Here are some other games to circle on the calendar in the second half of the season.
1. Chicago Bears at New England Patriots (Nov. 26): This is the best of the remaining interconference games. If you think the Cardinals and Dolphins can come up with great schemes for Grossman, imagine what Bill Belichick can do. By the end of this game, the league and the Bears will know how Grossman stacks up as a playoff quarterback. It's a great learning tool for him and Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner. This could be the defining moment of the season for the Patriots. They've lost to Denver and Indianapolis at home, so they certainly aren't invincible. A team that lost Deion Branch, David Givens, Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest and others covered up for their losses with great coaching. If the Patriots beat the Jets this weekend, they will have the AFC East pretty much wrapped up. The Bears will be coming off the Giants game and could be trying to avoid a three-game losing streak. This should be a dandy.
2. San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (Nov. 19) and Denver at San Diego (Dec. 10): The best division race in the AFC is in the West, where the Chargers, Broncos and Chiefs are all in it. The Chiefs are emerging as a threat and have already beaten the Chargers at home. The West is the only division in the AFC that is a true dogfight. The Ravens have the Bengals by two games in the AFC South. The Patriots could all but wrap up the AFC East this weekend. The Colts lead the Jaguars by three games in the AFC North. The Chargers will be missing Shawne Merriman for the first of these games, but will have him back for the second one.
3. Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants (Dec. 3): The NFC East is still great drama. The only one who'd sleep through these showdowns is Terrell Owens. You know, he has a sleeping disorder that gives him an excuse to sleep through meetings. Coughlin has done a remarkable job with the Giants. The Giants and Bengals entered the season tied for the league's toughest schedule. To come out of the first half averaging 24.3 points a game is testament to Eli Manning's growth as a quarterback. The Cowboys are up and down, but they should beat the Cardinals and Bucs to enter this game with at least a 6-5 record. It's clear the Giants are the best team in the division. They are 3-0 against NFC East foes, winning two of those games on the road. The Cowboys are 1-3 in divisional play. That stinks.
4. Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants (Dec. 17): Six of the Giants' final eight games are against teams that are currently .500 or better, so it's hard to think the Giants are going to run the table. Despite the 6-2 start, the Giants have lost a lot of players to injury. That's the problem of playing against good teams. Games are more physical and players get hurt. So it's hard to imagine the Giants will run away with the NFC East title. The Eagles started strong but have blown a 4-1 start with a three-game losing streak. They have a chance to get healthy in the next two weeks with home games against the Redskins and Titans. After that, they play a tough road game against the Colts on Nov. 28. In Week 2, the Eagles exposed problems in the Giants' defense by going no-huddle. Did everyone lose that tape?
5. New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (Nov. 26): Are the Saints for real? We'll find out after Thanksgiving. The Saints are the NFL's Cinderella team. They have a seventh-round choice, Marques Colston, who is the top candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. First-year coach Sean Payton turned over 27 spots on his 53-man roster and is 6-2. The Saints lead the NFC South by a game over the Falcons. The Saints won an emotional Monday night game against the Falcons in the Superdome on Sept. 25. One of the ideas of flexible scheduling is to capture one of the surprise teams and give it a prime-time game. Too bad for Saints fans this comes on the day Chicago plays New England.
6. Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs (Thanksgiving night, Nov. 23): The NFL Network should send a gift to Damon Huard. Once Trent Green went down in the opener, the NFL Network's debut looked like it was in trouble. The Chiefs lost that opener to the Bengals, and lost to the Broncos the next week, 9-6. Huard then rallied the team with flawless execution, and the Chiefs now stand at 5-3. Chiefs coach Herman Edwards will find out next week if Green is going to be cleared for contact. Does Edwards stay with Huard or go with Green? If Edwards stays with Huard for the Raiders game on Nov. 19, he's certainly going to go with Huard on the short Thanksgiving week. The Chiefs have drawing power with Larry Johnson at running back and Tony Gonzalez at tight end.
7. Indianapolis at Dallas (Nov. 19) and Philadelphia at Indianapolis (Nov. 26): Why pick these games over the Colts at Jacksonville on Dec. 10? The reason is simple. If the Jaguars stumble and lose another game or two before December, that game could just be an AFC South-clinching game for the Colts, who are 8-0 with a three-game lead over the Jaguars. Plus, the Jaguars face a much tougher schedule than the Colts in the second half of the season. The Jaguars' second half features teams with a combined 35-29 record. The Colts face teams that are 26-38. But the Colts are a great draw, so these two Colts games against NFC East teams will be interesting. Sure, people will talk about the perfect season. Everyone knows the Colts will lose a game or two somewhere down the line. These are two of the best chances to see the Colts in competitive situations.
8. Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers (Dec. 17): This one figures to be a Sunday night game. The Chargers will have Merriman back. The key is for the Chiefs to stay hot and stay in the AFC race. The game would feature the two best running backs in the AFC: Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson. It's Marty Schottenheimer going against his former team. Plus, the AFC West is fun. The games are physical and the rivalries are intense.
9. Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (Thursday night, Nov. 30): This game could be meaningless, but there's a chance it will end up being a critical division game. The Ravens have the easiest closing schedule in the AFC, facing teams with a 25-39 record. The Bengals have to turn their season around quickly to make this a good game, and there is no guarantee that is going to happen. Still, it's one of the most attractive AFC divisional matchups left on the schedule.
10. Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons (Dec. 24): On paper, these are the two best teams in the NFC South. Michael Vick has already given the Panthers' defense trouble. The Panthers spent three years acquiring defensive players to stop him. They added speed at the corners to contain him in the pocket. Vick caught the Panthers cold in the opener with a 20-6 victory in Charlotte. Most of the division races will be formalities by Christmas. This one should still be undecided.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
John Clayton previews the best games of the second half, starting with a huge NFC matchup between the Bears and Giants Sunday night.