- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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With many of the division races taking shape and even some of the wild-card races coming into focus, the headline games in the second half of the season are relatively easy to spot.
Clearly, this weekend offers two of the best matchups for the rest of the season. The New England-Indianapolis game is always compelling because of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Sunday's Bengals-Steelers game will offer insight as to who should take command in a tight AFC North race.
Here are other headliners for the second half:
New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints, Monday night, Nov. 30: This is clearly the best interconference matchup of the second half with a potential 10-0 Saints team facing the Patriots, who should run away with the AFC East. It will be interesting to see the game plan Bill Belichick comes up with for Sean Payton's offense.
Minnesota Vikings at Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 6: With throwback jerseys being the rage this season, why not a game of throwback quarterbacks to continue the theme? Brett Favre of the Vikings is 40 years old. Kurt Warner of the Cardinals is 38. Both could meet again in the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 22: The Chargers once trailed the Broncos by 3½ games in the AFC West. Now the deficit is down to one game after the Ravens and Steelers came up with plans to stop Denver, the NFL's surprise team.
Denver at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 13: The Broncos have tough games against the Chargers and Giants but still should be in the playoff race by the time they travel to Indianapolis. The Colts have had interesting times against Mike Nolan-coached defenses.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Jan. 3: The Cowboys took the lead in the NFC East with a 20-16 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday night. With road trips to Green Bay, the New York Giants, New Orleans and Washington ahead, it's unlikely Dallas will run away with the division, leaving this season finale as a possible battle for the division title unless the Giants rebound and get hot.
From the inbox
Q: I think the Texans' Brian Cushing should be the defensive rookie of the year. What do you think?
S. in Houston
A: We've reached midseason, and I'd put my X next to Cushing's name. I was at the Texans' game against the Colts on Sunday, and seeing him in person confirmed my impression that he was the best defensive rookie in the season's first half. He makes every tackle and has great range. The Texans have enough confidence in him to let him go in man coverage against tight ends. To beat him, I think Redskins DE Brian Orakpo would need a big second half and get more than 10 sacks.
Q: I'm scratching my head at Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio's strategy against the Titans in Week 8. Maurice Jones-Drew averaged more than 20 yards a carry but ran the ball only eight times. What was he thinking?
Tim in Philadelphia
A: That strategy puzzled me, but you have to give Del Rio credit for keeping the team competitive in a rebuilding year. You see how many rookies the Jaguars are using. They are in transition on the offensive line, at wide receiver and on defense. Yet, they are 4-4 after a 5-11 season. Sure, the Jags have beaten some bad teams, but they were expected to be bad, too. Jacksonville is heading in the right direction. For that reason, I'd give Del Rio the benefit of the doubt for a questionable strategy in one game. He has the big picture in mind, and this has been a decent turnaround season. It could have been a lot worse.
Q: I think the Vikings are the most complete team in the NFL, despite what all the experts are saying about New Orleans. What do you think it will take for the Vikings to keep up this success down the stretch, and what will they have to do to beat the Saints in the playoffs?
Erick in Chaska, Minn.
A: I came out of training camp believing the Vikings have the most talented roster in the NFC. I still believe that. They have Brett Favre, great receivers, the best running back in football (Adrian Peterson) and a great defense. I finally put the Saints ahead of them in ESPN.com's weekly Power Rankings because the Saints are unbeaten and probably will be 10-0 heading into their Monday night game against the Patriots in a couple of weeks. However, the Vikings have a great chance to win the conference even if they have to travel to New Orleans for a championship game. This is a great roster and a great team. You get the feeling the Vikings will finish 13-3 and the Saints will go 14-2.
Benjamin in Orlando, Fla.
A: I think Henne's future is bright. He shows a strong arm and good command in the huddle. He's reasonably accurate and isn't making many mistakes. The Dolphins need to spend more time developing their passing offense and stop using the Wildcat. How can Henne get into any rhythm when he's on the sideline watching Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams take snaps in the Wildcat? This league is about tempo and offensive rhythm. Henne is showing me he can handle that. So the Dolphins should let him.
Q: Am I alone in thinking that long replay reviews kill the momentum of some games? I am baffled that the process takes so long.
Mack in Manassas, Va.
A: You're probably not alone, but I don't think it's that bad. I'd rather have the option of getting the right call than letting the wrong call stand. Believe it or not, the officials are moving pretty quickly. Things drag out when there is a quarter in which two or three plays are challenged. The officials have about 90 seconds to review the play. The clock starts when they get to the monitor.
Q: Perhaps you can enlighten me as to why player contracts in the NFL are non-guaranteed, while coaches' contracts are guaranteed. I think this is an overlooked issue in the NFL.
James in Kingston, Ontario
A: It's pretty simple. There are 53 players, and each one is subject to potential season-ending injuries. You have one head coach and maybe 20 to 25 assistants. Their contracts aren't as expensive as players', and they aren't in physical risk. The overall structure of contracts is part of the union's labor negotiations. One of the things the NFL Players Association has not been able to do is get contracts guaranteed. As for the coaches' guarantees, I think that's why you are seeing more owners hiring less experienced coaches. They are cheaper, so if they have to buy them out, it doesn't cost as much money.
Q: After Buffalo fires Dick Jauron in January, do you think the team will secure an offensive-minded head coach? Also, do you foresee owner Ralph Wilson spending the money necessary to bring in one of the top names available?
Grant in Buffalo, N.Y.
A: That would make a lot of sense, but there isn't any guarantee of that. I think it's safe to say Ralph Wilson will look for a hot assistant coach. If you look at his history of hirings, though, it's rare for him to go outside the organization for many guys. He hired Jauron because former Bills coach Marv Levy recommended him, and Levy is close to Wilson. As for an offensive-minded coach, I don't know whether there's one available who is ready to take over as a head coach. You start to look at the Brian Schottenheimers or Kyle Shanahans as options. It wouldn't surprise me if Wilson goes for a defensive coordinator again.
John L. in Cincinnati
A: Hate to say this, but I think you are seeing the impact. Like most receiver moves in free agency or trades, you rarely find one that nets a 1,000-yard season from a veteran acquisition unless 100 passes are thrown in that receiver's direction. Most of the receivers signed or acquired in trades end up with a 10- to 12-yard average. Coles never had great speed, and years of playing have slowed him down. What the Bengals got is a dependable possession receiver. You are hearing from Coles on a team that is 6-2. I hope you like what you hear, because it won't be much different as the season progresses.
Q: Is it just me, or is the NFL less competitive this year because the league has made playing pass coverage so difficult? I know some QBs are historically bad this year, but many have been amazing, and a lot of that is because of the rules put in place to ensure high-scoring games.
Matt in Minnesota
A: Yes, there is less competition. The number of close games is down. The margin of victory is about the highest ever, more than 14 points a game. And you clearly are right in the way the league is set up this season. Good call by you. My theory goes to the good play of the quarterback, not the bad play of the quarterback. I think there are up to 16 top-notch quarterbacks in the league who can dominate a game. If an elite quarterback plays a respectable quarterback, there is a chance for a decent game, but the elite quarterback usually will prevail. If an elite quarterback plays a team with a bad quarterback, it will be a blowout. That's why I think you are seeing good passing teams beating good running teams on a consistent basis. If the running team doesn't have a good quarterback who can compete against the elite, it's a loss for the running team and probably leads to a bad loss.
Q: Do you think safety has become the most important position on defense? Look at what Darren Sharper and Brian Dawkins have done to their teams. The loss of Kenny Phillips has really hurt the Giants' D.
Terrell in Stockton, Calif.
A: There are a handful of safeties -- Dawkins and Sharper included -- who have changed the game. Dawkins, Troy Polamalu and the great ones can blitz. They can cover. They can stop the run. The Sharpers and Ed Reeds can read quarterbacks and make interceptions. The problem is finding that next group. I think Phillips' loss was huge because he had a chance to be a top playmaking safety. I'm not saying he'll be at that top level, but his loss has really been felt in the Giants' secondary.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
13hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
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