Spotlight shines on surprise teams
Buccaneers, Raiders and Chiefs can earn more respect, keep momentum going
Week 9 is filled with surprises.
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The Bucs have been opportunists, beating five teams with a combined record of 12-24. The St. Louis Rams are the only team the Bucs have beaten with a .500 record or better. Taking advantage of an easy schedule shouldn't be an indictment. No team in the NFC has won more than two games against teams with .500 records. Playing a 5-2 Falcons team on the road will be a huge test for a team coach Raheem Morris said is the best team in the conference.
The winner of Sunday's Kansas City-Oakland game will earn the AFC's surprise team crown at midseason. The Chiefs are 5-2, but their five wins came against teams with a combined 12-27 record. Their win two weeks ago against the Jaguars was the only one against a team with a .500 record or better. Still, the Chiefs gained respect by playing hard, competitive games in losses to the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans.
The Raiders' offense is getting hot at the right time. Jason Campbell has the support of owner Al Davis and is trying to avoid being benched by coach Tom Cable, who said Bruce Gradkowski is his starter when he's healthy. But Campbell has run an offense that posted 92 points in the past two games. No way he sits when he's making everyone around him play better.
Here are the 10 best storylines and trends of the week:
1. Dolphins' road to success: The Miami Dolphins have been a strange team this year. They are 0-3 at home but 4-0 on the road. They picked up Brandon Marshall to add big plays on offense but didn't start making big plays until a 96-yard fourth-quarter drive last Sunday that beat the Cincinnati Bengals. Sunday's visit to the Baltimore Ravens will be the ultimate test. The Ravens are rested and healthy after their bye week. They may get a boost on offense if wide receiver Donte' Stallworth runs a few deep routes in his Ravens debut. A loss by the Dolphins, though, could point them toward a third-place finish in the AFC East. The Patriots and Jets have winnable games against the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, respectively. Coming out of Week 9 at 4-4 would likely put the Dolphins three games out of first place and two games out of second.
2. Divisional doings: Now that the World Series is over, the NFL starts to throw in more divisional games. There are four divisional games in Week 9, highlighted by the AFC West showdown between the Chiefs and Raiders and the Bucs-Falcons matchup. The Saints should pick up a win against the Carolina Panthers and improve to 6-3 going into their bye. After the bye, the Saints have a relatively easy schedule. The Seattle Seahawks (Nov. 21) are the only team with a winning record New Orleans plays before Dec. 19. On Monday night, the Steelers play a revenge game against a Bengals team almost ready to say goodbye to the playoff race. The Bengals won the AFC North last season by going 6-0 in the division. The Steelers haven't forgotten the embarrassment of losing those two games to the Bengals. All season the Bengals have been trying to figure out whether they are a passing team or a running team. They enter the game knowing the Steelers are vulnerable to play-action passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents have a 110.4 quarterback rating against Pittsburgh on play-action passes. Carson Palmer has a 132.4 rating on play-action.
3. Playoff elimination Sunday: There are 21 teams that have .500 records or better, the most this late in the season since 1989. This week could unofficially determine if four 2009 playoff teams are going to have nothing but meaningless games in the second half of the season. The Vikings, Cowboys, Bengals and Chargers have to not only win their games, but they need help. The Chargers are 0-4 on the road, and if they lose Sunday's visit to Houston they would drop to 3-6 and be potentially 3½ games behind the Chiefs. The Bengals would fall four games behind the Steelers if they lose the Monday night game at Paul Brown Stadium. The Cowboys are more in a race with Buffalo for the first pick in the 2011 draft than the playoffs, but a Sunday night loss to the Packers would seal Dallas' fate as one of the NFC's biggest losers. The Minnesota-Arizona game was supposed to be a matchup of two of the NFC's final four playoff teams from last season. Instead, it features two of the league's biggest disappointments. The Cardinals will still be in the NFC West race if they lose because seven wins might win that division. They go back to QB Derek Anderson and his turnover tendencies. A Vikings' loss would drop them to 2-6 and put them in position to determine if they need to keep playing Brett Favre with two broken bones in his feet and an elbow that is aching from tendinitis.
4. Sanchez-Stafford, Round 1: Matthew Stafford of Detroit Lions and Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets were the top two quarterbacks drafted in 2009. Four years from now when they meet again, it will be great to compare how their careers ended up. Stafford is a like most No. 1 picks in a draft -- a great talent who lands on a bad team. He landed on a Lions team coming off an 0-16 season. He's missed 11 of his first 23 games because of injuries, but things look bright. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has built the NFC's highest-scoring offense at 26.1 points a game, and now that Stafford has recovered from his shoulder separation he's expected to grow rapidly. Stafford faces Sanchez at an interesting time. Sanchez landed on a Jets team with a great defense and a strong running game, but he's coming off a horrible performance against the Green Bay Packers, which made people start to wonder if he's regressing. The Jets' offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, but Sanchez's completion percentage has dropped from 53.8 as a rookie to 53 percent this year. If he can't take advantage of the Lions' problems in the secondary, people are going to wonder about his development.
5. Survivor, Indianapolis: The Indianapolis Colts, who play the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, have stretched their roster thin because of injuries. More than a dozen key players are hurt. Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez suffered a PCL knee injury on Monday night from a cheap shot by Texans safety Bernard Pollard. The Colts could be without Gonzalez, Austin Collie and tight ends Dallas Clark and Brody Eldridge. Their backfield is missing Joseph Addai and Mike Hart. Donald Brown is also banged up. Injuries have forced the Colts to add six replacement defensive backs since camp, and they could be without cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey Sunday. Peyton Manning may be having another MVP season, but at some point the Colts could run out of bodies, and even Manning might not be able to save them.
6. Survivor, Seattle: For the Seahawks to win the NFC West, they need to go 6-2, 7-1 or 8-0 at home, so winning Sunday's game at Qwest Field against the New York Giants is critical. But like the Colts, the Seahawks' roster is at the breaking point because of injuries. The Week 8 loss to the Raiders could linger for the rest of the season. Pete Carroll rebuilt a run defense that ranked second in the league before injuries hit the unit hard in Oakland. The Seahawks might be without defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Colin Cole and defensive end Red Bryant. The offensive line lost guard Ben Hamilton for the season and could be down two tackles, Russell Okung and backup Tyler Polumbus. The line problems led to a concussion to Matt Hasselbeck, whose health is critical to the Seahawks' winning the NFC West. Charlie Whitehurst will make his first NFL start in Hasselbeck's place Sunday.
7. Controlling the future: The Giants have had two bad experiences going cross-country and playing the Seahawks. In 2005, they lost in overtime, 24-21. The next year, they lost a 42-30 shootout in which the Seahawks jumped to a 35-0 first-half lead. The games have been marred with false starts and mistakes. If the Giants lose, it could set up a possible return to Qwest in the playoffs. For that to happen, the Seahawks would have to win the NFC West and the Giants would have to get a wild card behind either the Eagles or Redskins. Winning Sunday would put the Giants on a path to win the NFC East and to not have to worry about traveling back to Seattle.
8. Interconference insight: The AFC holds a 20-15 lead over the NFC, but the difference in the conferences is how well the top AFC teams do against the NFC. The Colts, Patriots, Titans, Jets and Dolphins are 11-2 against the NFC this season, and the Ravens will start their rampage against the NFC South with three straight games starting next week. The Colts are weakened by injuries, but the Eagles have to figure out a way to stop Manning. The debate for the Eagles is whether to blitz Manning. According to ESPN Stats & information, quarterbacks have a 55.5 quarterback rating against Eagles blitzes. Manning has a 101.2 rating against the blitz.
9. Shootout in Houston: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is putting up record passing yards this season. In eight games, he's thrown for 2,649 yards and 15 touchdowns, even though he hasn't had most of his wide receiving corps for the past couple of weeks. He faces a Houston Texans defense that is setting its own records. The Texans are giving up 299.4 passing yards and 404.1 total yards a game. They are on pace to give up 6,466 yards, worst in the NFL history. What's amazing is how their offense keeps them in games. The three worst 6,000-yard defenses had a combined record of 9-37. The Texans are 4-3.
10. Bottom-feeders: The Browns thought the bye week would heal the high-ankle sprains of Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme. Whoops. They still haven't been able to practice, so Colt McCoy, a rookie, must go against the trick defenses of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The Panthers are staying with Matt Moore at quarterback, but running back DeAngelo Williams remains out with a foot injury for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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